BOUGAINVILLE TO BREXIT: Peacebuilding help with referendum pains

From Bougainville to Brexit

A few years ago, I led a very consultative ‘peace, security and development’ assessment in Bougainville. Between 1988 and 1998, part of the population of this island fought a war against Papua New Guinea (PNG), a war that also turned internal, and left it with severe divisions after the peace agreement. The subsequent peace agreement provided for a referendum in Bougainville that includes the option of independence. It is now scheduled for June 2019. Two major concerns emerged from our consultations: First, most Bougainvilleans did not know that the results of the referendum still would have to be ratified by the National Parliament of PNG. Second, no one seemed to be considering different referendum outcome scenarios and thinking, in particular, about how to handle one in which, unlike the independence referenda held in 1999 in Timor Leste and in 2011 in South Sudan, there would only be a small majority for one option or another. That indeed would leave the island population very divided, and vulnerable to new violence. (I made the same point recently to members of the provisional government of the Western Sahara/Polisario Front).

Obviously, the possible consequences of only a small majority voting for one option or another, was also not anticipated in the UK’s EU membership referendum of 2016. For major ‘constitutional’ changes, and staying or leaving the European Union is of that order, constitutional democracies tend to set a higher marker than ‘simple majority’.  You would have expected a minimum requirement of, possibly 60%, to ensure there is enough societal support for such momentous change.  

As it is, for the past 2.5 years, we have been living and observing the metastasis of a referendum, originally meant to resolve long-standing tensions within the Conservative Party, to have caused deep societal divisions, tensions also in the Labour Party and, in recent weeks, even a questioning of the political system in the UK. The latter results from the blatant political party jockeying of the Tories, Labour and the DUP, and in particular manifests itself in the debate about a ‘second referendum’. Democrats everywhere would do well to pay attention, because there are lessons here valid way beyond the UK. The UK would also do well to get some ideas from peacebuilding approaches to referendum pains elsewhere.

People participation and referenda

When in a democratic politics the political class is stuck, general elections tend to follow. That is a way of consulting the citizens again. In the UK, party interests currently work against that option: The Conservatives and DUP don’t want to lose power. Also in the Labour Party, tactical calculations in the party interest are also at work: Labour is officially committed to Brexit. There is strong support among its membership for a second referendum, but also strong opposition (or hesitation) as Labour wants to win new seats in constituencies that voted ‘leave’. Add to that time pressure and uncertainty, not to say suspicion, in sections of the British public, about what policies Corbyn would pursue as Prime Minister (he is known not be a fan of the EU, as its rules constrain policy options about the role of government in stimulating national economies, rules the current Italian government has also chosen to break), and it obvious why there is little appetite for a general election. A second referendum then?

There are good arguments in favour:

  •     Voters now have a much clearer idea of the complexities of divorcing from the EU and establishing a new relationship; they can make better informed choices;

  •   Voters should also be able to more critically assess what politicians of different stripes and colours tell them about the benefits of staying or leaving and assess whether or where they are being misled. Populations, like individuals, can change their mind. In Switzerland, with its unique political tradition of putting issues to referendum, it suffices to gather 100.000 valid signatures to a compel a referendum. The same issue can be brought back even if it has been rejected once. The Swiss have repeatedly chosen not to join the EU. Admittedly, the Swiss generally are behaving as mature citizens, that take into account collective interest and longer-term perspectives, not just their short-term individual benefit;

  • Teresa May’s government is only surviving because of contingent factors – the Conservatives and DUP don’t want a general election, which would also add to the political chaos, and parliament is deeply divided over what sort of Brexit could get enough consensus support. In addition, MPs are torn between what their constituents voted for, their personal views and their party (or factional) position.

  •  One of the reasons why, reportedly, a number of people voted ‘leave’, is their alienation from a political class in London, perceived as living in a bubble and not caring about the social and economic wellbeing of parts of the nation. The spectacle of the British political class in recent months cannot have improved that perception. That too should be an argument for going back to citizens.

There are also arguments against a second referendum:

  • It would represent a shift to a citizen or people’s democracy, undermining the institution of parliamentary majority. That is a silly argument: parliamentarians in any case are supposed to express the will of their constituents, and with that argument there shouldn’t have been a first referendum either. Questions can also be asked about the role of the Brexit-supporting DUP from Northern Island, where a majority clearly voted ‘remain’.

  •  It shows an unacceptable arrogance on the part of ‘remainers’, who seem to believe that ‘leave’ voters were ‘misinformed ‘and ‘misled’. It would further fuel resentment and anger among erstwhile ‘leave voters’, deepening divisions in society even more. That is a valid argument. But presumably the questions in a second referendum would not be  a simple replica of the first, but ask people to make choices about more options (‘Canada’, ‘Norway’ style etc.)

  •  It’s not necessarily a way out: If there is a second referendum, with an equally narrow majority now to ‘remain’, then what? Parliament could end up remaining equally divided. And even if there were a larger majority to ‘remain’, then why not -in a few years- a third referendum, pushed by those who wanted to leave?

So how to overcome this political deadlock, in the political class and the citizenry, to enable a choice that a good majority of people may not be totally happy with, but at least can live with?

One interesting move, belatedly, was the suggestion to test what level of support there may be in Parliament, for other options than Teresa May’s rejected deal and her fairly identical ‘Plan B’. The suggestion may stumble over internal and inter-party politics. However, in my view, there is no way that the British citizenry can be left further as frustrated bystanders. Too much has happened in the past 2.5 years, in terms of new information, new debates, and evolving perceptions of and trust in politicians and political parties, that must be brought out in a larger, public debate, and especially in better quality 'dialogue'.

Connecting citizens and political decision-makers

There are some interesting experiences from international peacebuilding, that are relevant here:

a.      Sustained dialogue circles: ‘Debate’ needs to be complemented at least with facilitated dialogues. ‘Debates’ are mostly taken as opportunities to disseminate the positions of participants who are not really interested in listening to alternative views, and generally remain closed to influence. Participants to a ‘dialogue’ don’t come with the prospect they will change their mind, but they have committed to listen, attentively and with respect. ‘Dialogue’ is a better-quality conversation that allows people to voice and possibly retain different opinions, without creating deeper antagonisms between them. To achieve its positive impact on the quality of relationship among people with different views, a one-off dialogue session is not enough. Dialogue, unlike debate, also enables the conversation to move from ‘positions’ to underlying ‘interests’ and ‘needs’, a classical move in mediation. Seeking to hear and understand the underlying ‘interests’ and ‘needs’ that make someone opt for ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ makes for a far more interesting conversation than a shouting match between two camps entrenched in their positions. My hypothesis is that not all the underlying grievances derive from policies made in Brussels.  Some seem more the result of UK national policy choices and losing out in the structural trend of globalisation. The interests and needs that underpinned the ‘leave’ vote, have not received the attention they deserve. Hence, it has rightly been pointed out that if, for some reason, Brexit doesn’t happen, it would be a fatal mistake to then ignore what led so many to vote for ‘leave’ in the first place. (See my earlier blog “Preventing Violent Populism”)

b.      Deliberative polling: This is a form of polling  that incorporates the principles of deliberative democracy. Professor James S. Fishkin of Stanford University first articulated the approach in 1988. The Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University describes the process as follows: "A random, representative sample is first polled on the targeted issues. After this baseline poll, members of the sample are invited to gather at a single place for a weekend in order to discuss the issues. Carefully balanced briefing materials are sent to the participants and are also made publicly available. The participants engage in dialogue with competing experts and political leaders based on questions they develop in small group discussions with trained moderators. Parts of the weekend events are broadcast on television, either live or in taped and edited form. After the deliberations, the sample is again asked the original questions. The resulting changes in opinion represent the conclusions the public would reach, if people had opportunity to become more informed and more engaged by the issues." i]

A deliberate polling process has been used in many countries, including -yes- China, to make important public choices. Taking into account my earlier comments, I would suggest that the facilitators of a deliberative polling gathering, create an atmosphere that encourages ‘dialogue’ so that conversations don’t remain stuck in adversarial debate.

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c.      Participatory polling: This is another mechanism to reduce the gap between citizens/stakeholders and those taking decisions over big public policy choices. There are different variations, depending on whether and when public dialogue is connected to the polling. A first principle is that the polling questions are shaped and agreed by the different groups that need to make hard decisions, and not by some polling institute, newspaper, academic group etc. The questions need to reflect the real preoccupations that the decision-makers are struggling with. Participatory polling can test the public mood about difficult issues, but subsequently also be used to test public reaction to more detailed policies and proposals that are seriously considered, but not yet decided. This is important as political leaders look over their shoulder, trying to gage what their followers and supporters are ready for and what not? Between 1996 and 2003, nine ‘peace polls’ were conducted in Northern Ireland, around the difficult issues the political leaders were struggling with.[ii] Generally, they turned out to be an enabling mechanism as they indicated to political decision-makers how much public support there was, and how broad.

In divided Cyprus, the Annan Peace Plan fell apart in the 2004 referendum that sought public endorsement for it. On both sides, voter turnout was very high, but while 65% of Turkish Cypriots accepted it, 76% of Greek Cypriots rejected it. This put the whole peace process on hold for quite some time and left subsequent negotiators uncertain what to do. Ten years later, with a new process gaining some momentum, a bi-communal group of Cypriots evolved the participatory polling approach. They would work with the decision-makers but also thematic experts on difficult issues (e.g. what to do with land and property originally from Greek Cypriots but now on the Turkish Cypriot side, and vice versa). This enabled a polling of public opinion on very detailed aspects of a complex issue. Polling results can feed into the negotiations but also into public dialogue circles, creating an additional, and more impartial, process of interaction between citizens and the political class.  

Such form of participatory polling seems particularly relevant for the UK, given the combination of difficult issues (migration, economically deprived zones, discontent with European Court of Justice decisions etc.) that are all at play in the Brexit question. Such approach would allow, for example, to test public support for different types of immigration policies, or a sophisticated immigration policy with different components.  Well designed and managed, this approach would enable more constructive dialogue among citizens, and between citizens and their political representatives, than a second referendum. Particularly if the latter again sets the bar at simple majority and offers only two options.

This should have been initiated two years ago. It is unlikely to be seriously considered now, on the argument that ‘the clock is ticking’. And many British citizens by now are fed up with an issue that has overtaken all other priorities and only generated huge amounts of negative energy. Yet the strategic error of not pursuing negotiations in a manner that also regularly involved citizen participation, and tested what could get broad support and what not, will have a fall out well after whatever decisions is ultimately taken. It is never too late to start participatory policy making.

That also applies to the other EU member states and -societies. It would be a major mistake to just watch the drama series that Brexit has become, as if it was a pure UK story that has no relevance elsewhere. Comparable discontents, with globalisation, impacts of the digital revolution, alienation from the mainstream political parties, austerity politics etc. are alive and well among the other EU citizens. Societal divisions elsewhere are deepening. We must draw lessons from the UK struggles, and adopt more sophisticated approaches. So too can Bougainville.





The ‘peace dividends’ theory of change: A reduction in violence and progress towards lasting peace will be helped by a rapid reconstruction of vital public infrastructure (roads, schools, health posts, urban water and sanitation systems etc.); a renewed delivery of essential services, especially by the state; and the initiation of development-type projects! This has been a long-standing assumption among especially governmental and multi-lateral policy makers working on peace agreements, stabilisation, state (re)building and peacebuilding. The strapline summary of this theory of change is ‘peace dividends’: if people start seeing tangible benefits, they will be less inclined to continue with or support further violent confrontation.

Often missing from that theory-of-change is the political economy of rehabilitation and development. In simple words: whose interests are mostly served, who benefits? If this is a relevant question in post-agreement situations, it is even more acute where national power and the nature of the state remain contested.

Questioning the assumption: The first challenge to that assumption, for me, dates back to my years in the Ogaden, now Somali Region 5 in eastern Ethiopia. Then I learned that the indigenous Somali population, during the revolt against the Mengistu regime, had destroyed many schools and health posts. Perplexing: Why would a population living in such harsh region destroy what we consider essential services, the lack of which is often one grievance contributing to civil war?

Recent work in different contexts is sounding the cautionary note again, at project but also at broader, strategic level.

Rehabilitation as potential driver of conflict - Libya: In several Libyan towns and cities, international organisations are repairing and rehabilitating such essential public infrastructures. The Libyan people need them. But there at least three ways in which these interventions can increase tensions and potentially trigger new confrontation:

§  Divided towns: In towns with multiple social identity groups that distrust each other and do not share easily anymore, each group may demand a service post of its own (e.g. school, health post), and may be wary of its service (e.g. the town water supply) being under the control of another group. A Libyan peacebuilder even gave me an example of dispute over the rehabilitation of kindergartens in a city, when the first ones were done in a wealthier part of town, raising suspicions among the residents of other neighbourhoods. This is a classical situation requiring strong competencies to operate with conflict sensitivity. One conflict sensitivity principle adopted by international aid agencies working in Libya speaks to this: “Assistance should be delivered in an inclusive and impartial way.” This is a solvable challenge.

 §  Unrepresentative local authority: The aid agency may wish to work in close cooperation with the municipal council, which is supposed to be closest to the town population and has the first responsibility for service provision. What to do however, if it turns out that the municipal council is not representative of the diversity of social identity groups in the town, but controlled by one? Working with it will be perceived as strengthening the position of one group against the others; bypassing it does not help the restoration of public authority at local level, prolonging weak local governance. This is a more difficult challenge. It can be overcome, but will require some creative programming that wisely navigates local politics and resists the temptation to aim for ‘quick results’. Another conflict-sensitivity principle for Libya applies here: “Assistance should strengthen the ability of our partners to be accountable to their own communities and constituencies.”

 §  Contested central authority: However, a problematic situation exists in the relationship between national and local authorities. In 2012 the then provisional government promulgated Law 59, establishing a new local administrative system in a spirit of decentralisation. Elections for municipal councils followed. However, as if often the case in decentralisation processes, the new local administrations do not have formal authority over service provision, which remains the responsibility of central line ministries. Nor do they have budgetary control, which remains with the central Ministry of Local Administration, in coordination with those of Finance and Planning. This only provides the local administrations with a budget for their basic operating costs – while not allowing them to raise any local taxes. A third conflict-sensitivity for Libya could be invoked here: “Assistance should be delivered in a way that strengthens the connection between central institutions and development activities in the regions of Libya.” Programmes could indeed be designed to help reduce this incoherence in the public administration, if they take a broader perspective than simple 'project delivery'. But there is a deeper political problem: There are currently three Libyan entities claiming to be the national government. The international community stands by the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. In practice, this has limited implementation capacity. More problematically, it is contested by segments of Libyan society, especially in the north-eastern part of the country known as ‘Cyrenaica’. The result is a serious political dilemma for aid agencies: If they carry out rehabilitation projects separate from the GNA, their official permission to operate in Libya may be revoked. If they work in cooperation with the GNA, in parts of the country they may not get a ‘social license to operate’. How this political -and military - standoff will evolve, cannot be predicted. Aid struggles to be impartial and conflict-reducing here, and the assumed link between rehabilitation of public services-improved local governance- national stability and peace is a hope-line, by no means a clear trajectory of positive change.

Peace dividends in ceasefire economies: who benefits? - Myanmar: In Myanmar, the 2015 elections brought victory for the National League for Democracy, the long-time political opposition movement to the military regimes. It followed shortly after the signing of a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with eight armed opposition groups from ethnic minorities. Two more joined later. Some of the ethnic armed groups had already reached bilateral ceasefire agreements before: The Karen National Union (KNU) for example in 2012. On the other hand, a 17-year long ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Organisation/Army and the military junta, signed in 1994, broke down in 2011. The result has been intensive fighting that has received nowhere near as much attention as the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya population in southwest Myanmar.

Negotiations between the NCA signatories and the new, partially civilian, government in Myanmar, have been going on for 3 years now, but a political agreement that could bring sustained peace is not in sight. The fighting in Kachin continues, the other ceasefires meanwhile have held. The situation on the ground however is changing.

In south-eastern Myanmar for example, where the Karen historically have been the dominant group, the Myanmar state has been able to significantly expand its presence during the ceasefire. That is certainly the case for the army, dominated by the Bamar ethnic group. It has penetrated into territories formerly held by the Karen National Liberation Army, establishing new military bases, accessible through repaired and new roads, and turning some sites of forcibly relocated populations into new urbanised centres. The improved security of the ceasefire period has also encouraged multiple companies to set up business in the south-east, often facilitated by the Government or directly by the army, senior officials of which have very extensive business interests. These supposedly bring ‘development’. In practice, as in Kachin state, many of these are extractive industries or agro-businesses, leading to land grabs and new displacement, or the inability of refugees and IDPs to return to their original areas now taken over by such companies – all without consultation or compensation.

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The Government has also been extending administrative and social services, for example sending teachers to areas where for years the education and health services were provided by ethnic movements, some of which have a decent administrative and governance presence (including police and a judiciary). These now bring (exclusive) Burmese language education in schools that previously operated in the mother tongue of the ethnic minority, and potentially a Burmese/Bamar view of history and the nation. In areas of mixed control, there can be double taxation, two police forces, mixed language instruction, creating new complexities for the local populations.

Worryingly, one of the biggest current threats to many rural populations in Myanmar is the Law on Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management, amended in 2018. This affects almost a third of the total land area, and risks increasing land conflicts and dispossession of large numbers of rural people without formal land titles. This is certainly the situation in many ethnic minority areas where people have relied on customary land arrangements.

It doesn’t take many conversations with Karen leaders, to realise the very mixed feelings this causes. While some argue that the current peace process is the best opportunity they have had in decades (almost since the independence of Burma/Myanmar in 1948), and that patience is required because “it is more difficult to make peace than war”, others are deeply worried. Should the ceasefire break down again and fighting resume, the Karen movement and forces will be in a much weaker position. Not surprisingly, there have already been some serious clashes to stop road repairs or new road construction.

This presents a complex situation for the international aid organisations: Following the 2015 political changes in Myanmar, broadly seen as a historical opportunity for democratisation and peace, many aid organisations– bilateral, multilateral and nongovernmental – strengthened or shifted their centre of operations to Yangon and Naypyidaw. Most donor funding followed. Since then, they have been pursuing recovery and developmental programmes under the authority of the Government of Myanmar. Funding and support to the social services of the ethnic opposition movements, and independent ethnic CSOs like e.g. the Karen Human Rights Group or Karen Women’s Organisation, has shrunk.

The political vision of several armed groups, for decades, has been of a federal democratic Burma/Myanmar, with a high degree of autonomy of the constituent states. While the re-positioning of the international aid actors to may be very appropriate when there is a political agreement with broad support, this is not a ‘post-conflict’ situation. Turning Naypyidaw and Yangon into the centres for international assistance may unwittingly be supporting a unitary state. It is in any case contributing to the expansion of the state - and its military apparatus – into ethnic minority areas. And this while the military remain a ‘state within the state’, controlled by hard-line senior officers, whose brutal tactics remain unchanged, as their operations against the Kachin and Rohingya demonstrate.

Several international actors in Myanmar still hold the assumption that economic development, jobs and livelihoods will contribute to peace, and operate with spending targets. As if throwing money at a problem is always a good way of solving it. They seem to ignore that any concrete benefits here are not ‘peace dividends’ but ‘ceasefire dividends’. The biggest strategic winner of this are the Myanmar authorities, particularly the military. We must recall that the renewed fighting in Kachin followed a similar period of business and development under a ‘ceasefire economy’. While some Kachin leaders shared in the profits, Kachin communities largely did not, and continued to experience threats from the military, forced displacement and land grabs. With no progress those 17 years on the fundamental issue of marginalisation of non-Bamar identity groups, and their inclusion via a federal constitution.

Not surprisingly, many Karen activists are not that trusting of international aid agencies that have so quickly put themselves on the government side. “The internationals are going too fast” comments one Karen leader.

This situation might have been difficult to foresee, though there was the precedent in Kachin. But it cannot now be ignored. International aid agencies need to seriously reflect how they are going to position themselves in this uncertain situation. Burying the easy assumption that rehabilitation and development intrinsically contribute to peace, must be part of that.

Somali political economy advisors? Oh, and what about these Somalis in 1991? Well, they saw these schools and health posts as instruments for the penetration of an oppressive state controlled by Ethiopian highlanders, not as basic service provision. That’s why they destroyed them when they could.

If local populations without formal education can understand the politics of state-formation and state-expansion, surely the well-educated staff of aid agencies can too? 



Are our Formats and Procedures Fit-for-Purpose?

Tensions in the world are rising, human security is threatened in many places and more violent conflicts become intractable. Intervening and injecting financial resources in turbulent environments can increase the tensions and confrontations or create new ones. We know that we need to work with conflict-sensitivity, and support particularly local and national capacities for peaceful conflict management. Various aid donors actively support this in their policies.

The question is: Are our planning and grant making formats and procedures enabling or constraining for such?


Working with conflict-sensitivity and peace work is typically non-linear and happens at variable pace. Sometimes we accelerate to grasp a window of opportunity, sometimes we need to slow down drastically because the situation is not ready for a certain step. We must anticipate set-backs.

Working with conflict-sensitivity or doing peacebuilding means focusing on the quality of relationships among divided and antagonistic groups. Improved relationships cannot be ‘delivered’ as per a plan, the way you can ‘deliver’ the rehabilitation of public service infrastructure like schools and clinics, or cash to people in acute distress. Yet by and large the aid world continues to operate with an illusion of ‘control’ that it rarely has, certainly not in turbulent environments, and even less so where it seeks to affect the relationship between different groups with high levels of distrust. Getting two important protagonists to -finally- agree to meet, can be a major milestone in its context and have taken months of persistent effort. But be dismissed as 'trivial' by those who sit far removed from that context.

 ‘Project cycle management’ is not a good fit for handling volatile socio-political dynamics. Yet we have to write project proposals with a detailed intervention logic, visualised in a linear cause-effect logframe, with a promise to deliver results by a given time, and a budget detailed accordingly. This encourages thoughtful planning. The problem arises when this becomes the reference for a legally binding contract. The Prussian Chief of Staff von Moltke famously stated “No battle plan survives the first contact with the enemy”. Adapt to: “Many relief and recovery or peace plans do not survive first contact with the conflicting parties.”  

Fortunately for peacekeepers and for diplomatic peace mediators and negotiators, they are not subjected to Results-Based Management approaches that bind them legally to ‘deliver results’ in fragmented, chaotic and violent environments. When it comes to them, donors and their political task masters demonstrate realism. Why does that realism so rarely extend to the efforts of aid-supported organisations? I still remember the young donor representative, in Libya in 2013, telling a peacebuilding organisation “I want results, visible results, and I want them now, so I have successes to report to my headquarters!”. As if there are quick peacebuilding fixes after 40 years of Qaddafi rule and its violent overthrow. There was little interest then in deeper but slower peacebuilding. Six months later, Libya collapsed further into internal chaos and strife. Much aid money was wasted.

Procedural constraints do not come from institutional donors only: operational organisations have their own. These too can be an obstacle to doing the right thing at the right time, and to rapid adaptation to an evolving contextual situation or based on internal learning about the effects, intended and unintended, of our intervention. Many operational organisations furthermore work with or support local ‘partners’, to whom they provide sub-grants. Do their procedures and requirements  enable local partners to flexibly adapt where needed?

How do we overcome our own internal institutional contradictions, without falling into a vacuum of planning and of accountability? Here are a few useful steps:   

 1.       Plan for adaptive management

By failing to prepare you are preparing to fail” warned Benjamin Franklin. To which Eisenhower responded: “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Going into a volatile environment without a sense of what you want (hope) to achieve, and how and with whom you are going to get there, is like going into rough seas in a boat without rudder. You will be tossed around and likely go nowhere, or even drown.

Peace work and working with conflict sensitivity require planning - but of a different nature. “Plan for sailboats not for trains”, the brilliant subtitle of Rachel Kleinfeld’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report on “Improving Development Design and Evaluation”, says it all. Sailboats are subject to the forces of water and wind; their sailors must know the different abilities of different boats to cope with these. Sailboats get from A to Z but not in a straight line like a train. For centuries, sailors even ventured into uncharted waters, often having to return when a hoped-for passage turned out to be a creek with no other exit. Working in volatile environments, with conflict sensitivity and perhaps more ambitiously to reduce violence and contribute to greater peacefulness, requires the skill of sailors. Perseverance is good - but not if it means doggedly ‘staying the course’, as the US did for years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, following the ‘plan’ virtually on automatic pilot and ignoring blatant evidence of massive negative consequences.

Much planning for action in volatile environments is overdesigned. We need to learn to plan for process-work and for adaptive management, building flexibility into our preparedness and planning itself. A good example of that, from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I have documented in an earlier blog. [i] Theories of change, inasmuch as they are very contextually specific rather than generic, are more helpful than logframes, because they force us to render explicit our assumptions and revisit them regularly. Problem-driven iterative adaptation (PDIA) is another mindset and practice to operate in complex situations where there are no clear cause-effect relationships, so that we need rapid feedback and learning loops. [ii] In its 2017-2022 Sustainable Peace Strategy, the Swedish government deliberately mentions that “The implementation of the strategy shall be characterised by an adaptive and iterative way of working.”

2. Anticipate dilemmas

Violent and volatile environments often present us with moral dilemmas where our actions have some positive effects but also negative ones which we cannot reduce or correct. I heard it is part of the training of senior military in some forces. But have not yet seen a manual or training on ‘project cycle management’ in the aid sector that addresses dilemma management and provides practical guidance on working this through. My most useful resource so far has been the Framework for Ethical Decision Making from the Markkula Centre for Applied Ethics. [iii]

  3. Engage your resources management colleagues

Working with conflict sensitivity or doing peace work has implications for decisions about human resources, logistics and procurement and finance. Cost and quality cannot always be the only considerations.

The best bid from a supplier, in terms of cost and quality, may come from a company that is headed by the brother of the local militia commander. It’s probably not a good idea to ignore that. It poses a double risk for you: first, if you have a problem with the contractor, you might find some militia members on your doorstep; secondly, working with this contractor may mean that some of the profits go to the irregular militia making you a supporter of the local war economy, or other socio-political groups will perceive you as aligned with the group the militia belongs to. When recruiting staff for field work in a fragmented and contested environment, I may not just choose those that scored best in the recruitment process, if these best candidates come overwhelmingly from one of the contesting groups. I may consciously opt to hire others who did less well, to have a staffing profile that includes all major contesting groups in that environment. I am aware that by doing so I may bring the conflict dynamics into my organisation and am prepared to work on that. But I do it to underscore my impartiality to the conflicting parties, thereby increasing my acceptance and socio-political ‘license to operate’. Financially, I may have to accept what has now become ‘necessary duplication’ e.g. in the rehabilitation of schools and health centres. Whereas previously a locally diverse population would share the health centre and school, their internal conflict may have led them to physically segregate into their own neighbourhoods and no longer willing or able to share the same service infrastructure. I may have to invest in additional school and health infrastructure to get enough coverage for the whole population – accepting an extra cost.

Unless my resources-managing colleagues understand and buy-in to the rationales of conflict-sensitivity and effective peace work, they may object, because these practices are not in line with the overall procedures.

Most training and guidance about conflict-sensitivity and peace work however focuses on programme staff, not their resources-managing colleagues. Recently, with a colleague, we ran a first workshop on conflict-sensitivity for resources-managers from UN and INGO organisations operating in Libya. Remarkable was their active interest and appreciation to be ‘included’ in this reflection. While most organisations have a provision for ‘exceptions’ of standard procedures, they actually recommended that the consideration of ‘conflict-sensitivity’ be written into the regular procedures, along ‘cost’ and ‘quality’ – and made an active element of the ‘value’ side in ‘value-for-money’ conversations. An entry point for this can be ‘risk management’ but now in its more comprehensive understanding: not only the risks from the operating environment to us and our operations (security, fraud and corruption, reputation) but also the risks of unintended negative consequences of our intervention in a turbulent environment.

They are right: Only by making conflict-sensitivity a standard consideration can we also counter other perverse incentives, a notable one being ‘the pressure to spend’. Pouring money into a tense environment is often pouring oil on the fire. Yet I see managers ask more questions about the ‘burn rate’ than about negative impacts. This is irresponsible and potentially destructive.

These resources-managing colleagues were not happy with their segregation from their programme colleagues: They wanted to understand the narrative of a proposal and not just work on the budget, they wanted to see or hear the insights from conflict-and peace assessments and analysis that their colleagues conducted or commissioned, they were eager to see their organisation internally ‘working-as-one’, and sit together with their programme colleagues in discussions about dilemmas and difficult decisions.

Perhaps they were not a representative sample. Resources manager can also act as the staunch guardians of the procedural doctrine, resisting and refusing any exceptions or flexibility, even less so if they would lead to a deviation from a legally binding contract. This is misplaced: Resources management exists for two purposes: to enable operations and to exercise oversight and control for accountability. The primary purpose, deploying the right resources to enable contextually effective action, should not be rendered subordinate to the controlling function. That is counter-productive, as proper learning, review and evaluation processes, and management audits. will highlight.

4. Engage the oversight actors

Even if our resources-management colleagues are on board, they too remain subject to further oversight: from auditors and lawyers, and indirectly from parliament and the media. If we build process-work, adaptive management and the responsibility to work with conflict-sensitivity into the procedures and documents that get legally enshrined, we remove potential stumbling blocks for lawyers and auditors. Most of these are intelligent people: let’s also spend some time explaining to them why this makes for very good practice in turbulent and complex environments. As for parliaments and the media, who cause worry to our colleagues in the aid administrations and their political task masters: most of them are solid realists as well. They too can understand why working in and on the conflict dynamics in e.g. Yemen, Libya, Mali, Syria or Afghanistan is not a simple straightforward ‘delivery of planned results’ story. Our journalist colleagues cannot ‘deliver press freedom and protection of journalists’ in e.g. Egypt, Turkey, Venezuela or Malta. Our parliamentarians in our donor countries, when considering new legislation or policies, pay attention to whether they will increase social inequalities or run into strong opposition. They also know that many of our public sector programmes will not go entirely ‘according to plan’ - or budget.

5. What about accountability?

How do we combine flexibility with accountability? Here are some of the attention points from my many years as programme manager, proposal assessor, learning facilitator and programme evaluator:

§  Draws on collective learning and context insight? I still see proposals and plans for action in troubled environments that are oblivious to the vast collective learning available. Too often, we still see poor designs and proposed actions with obvious shortcomings. Negative consequences are almost predictable. On the other hand, what the best things to do is, can be very context and even situation-specific. So here I will check how much insight the proposer actually has in the dynamics of the operating context.

§  Navigational skills? When reviewing or evaluating an intervention in a volatile environment, seeing an organisation implement very much according to a plan (often established years before), rings an alarm bell rather than reassures. What I am looking for, and will positively appreciate, is skilful navigators in troubled waters – not just the captain but the crew as a whole.

§   The decision-trail?  Project progress and end reports are mostly written for administrative and contractual purposes. What I am interested in is a logbook of important decisions during the lifespan of the intervention, and the considerations that were taken into account. I positively value examples of adaptation and course correction, when based on ongoing assessment of the evolving dynamics in the environment, and constant learning about the various effects of our action in it. If in the reporting of a two-year intervention in a violent environment I don’t find examples of course corrections driven by the identification of negative side-effects, I fear I found a serious case of conflict-blindness.

§  The views of those stuck in the storm? The ‘value’ of an action is not (just) its relevance for the policy or strategy of a foreign government. What we really need to hear is the perceived and experienced value for those who are intended to benefit from it. If these views are absent, underrepresented, or given less weight, in our reporting or e-value-ation,  we have lost our sense of purpose.

§  Longer term effects and impacts? Many effect and consequences of an action don’t show up quickly, within the relatively short time frames of a ‘project’. Some of the more immediate and visible benefits may also not last – but perhaps our action has strengthened the confidence, competencies and capacities (‘resilience’) of those continuing to live in difficult circumstances. The deeper legacy is more interesting than the short-term successes. That means we need to assess, evaluate and appreciate over long-time frames.

We know all this from our domestic public policies, programmes and practices – let’s apply that realistic wisdom also when we try to help other societies in greater turmoil.





LOCAL CAPACITIES FOR PEACE: What questions to ask?

In recent years, I have had the opportunity to evaluate programmes that promoted and supported local peace capacities in different countries. Some of these operated in post-violence situations, others in still very unstable and violent ones. Often they came in the form of ‘committees’, made up of people living in a certain socio-geographical area (a village or grouping of villages, a small town, a city neighbourhood); on occasion as a network of influential individuals. Their particular shape was invariably the result of ideas brought by international NGOs, who saw it as building on local traditions of conflict-resolution by socially respected figures, but now enhanced with other, introduced, techniques, for greater effectiveness.

None of the ones I looked at were part of a national ‘peace infrastructure’, a set-up developed organically years ago in Ghana and since promoted by some as a useful import to address peace challenges in other societies.

There is no overarching conclusion about the effectiveness of such local peace capacities. Much will depend on the particular situational conditions, key individuals, and the process to encourage and support them. But here are key questions that will help you critically reflect on them:

1.   How did the local structure (committee, network or whatever) come into its current shape? Ideas and practices can take root irrespective of who introduced them. But we want to check whether that has happened, or is it still experienced as something from ‘outside’.

 2. Who are the members of a local peace committee/network? How did they come into that role? Members appear with their particular social profile or status, but also bring their individual histories, competencies and personality. What motivates them to take up a role that is typically not remunerated or at least not directly (they will build up social and political capital). Where they nominated, co-opted, elected – by whom? Self-selected?

3.  Do they represent the locally relevant social diversity? What is the involvement of women and of youth? What social identities exist within this environment as recognised and used by local residents in their interactions? Are there social groups who have no member in the local peace entity? Why? How is that perceived? Are there women and young members? Why, whose initiative was that? Why these specific individuals? What roles do they play in practice in the functioning of the peace capacity?  Does broader inclusion enhance their internal and external effectiveness? Why – and according to whom?

4. How do they function internally? Do they only come together when there is a conflict to be dealt with, or also in between? Are the gatherings formal or informal? Is there a formalised internal leadership, or only a dynamic of particular personalities? How do they allocate roles among each other? How do they make decisions internally?

5.  How is their functioning financed? These peace makers invest time but also money. They have transport costs, need to eat during their peace work, probably stay overnight, communicate. They may have a small office or meeting place which at least needs to be maintained. Peace making may incur other expenses such as tea and snacks offered during meetings, a sheep or other animal offered during a ceremony, ritual paraphernalia that need to be bought. Some of these costs may be born by the conflicting parties or other members of the ‘community’ – some of them will come to the members. Is their functioning largely financed from internal resources, or external ones? Is the continued peace work at risk if external funding reduces or dries up?

6.  What approaches to conflict resolution do they use in practice? What role(s) do they play? Do they rely on what local people recognise as ‘traditional’ approaches or techniques of conflict resolution, do they add others they may have learned from outsiders? How do they decide which approaches to choose or to combine? Which ones are they most comfortable with, most competent in? What ‘arguments’ do they use to convince conflicting parties to change behaviour:  e.g. religious precepts, specific cultural norms and values, general respect for other human beings, the threat of negative consequences, the rewards of positive behaviours? How do they learn from experience? What roles do they play: convenor, facilitator, mediator, arbitrator?

7. What disputes and conflicts do they take on, which ones not? Which ones do they feel beyond their influence? Local level conflict can derive from interactions between locally resident individuals, families or social groups. But can also involve individuals or social groups that are locally connected but live far away, in the capital city, even abroad in the diaspora. Local conflicts can relate to broader sub-national or national dynamics, between identity groups, rivalling ‘big men’ or political parties. It can involve competition between locally resident traders who have a broader network, or even involve national or international corporate firms.  Local people may be involved in illicit economic networks or wider national gangs. Many possible sources of tension and confrontation: what does the local peace capacity deal with, what does it not touch, and why? Examine case histories, in detail.

8. How do they deal with conflict with neighbouring ‘communities’? Tensions and confrontations may arise over land ownership, access to water resources, grazing pastures, or fishing and hunting zones. Village boundaries will become contested when the soil in between contains gold dust or another precious metal, accessible to artisanal mining. Rivalries can arise between neighbouring towns over control over check posts and toll points on trading or smuggling routes. Inasmuch as a peace capacity is ‘local’, it has no standing or influence beyond the ‘local’. So how does it deal with such conflicts with neighbouring groups’? If there are comparable peace committees in neighbouring communities, what relationship exists between them? Are the cross-cutting relationships between individuals, or between the respective committees?  Examine case histories, in detail.

9. What triggers their intervention? Are they pro-active or do they only mobilise when called upon? Do they come into play when a situation is already escalating, or do they try to prevent that from happening through early intervention? Case history examination again can tell us more.

10.  What is the basis of their acceptance or legitimacy among the local population(s)? Why do people come to them with their conflict, or accept their intervention? Is it related to the social standing of the individual members (e.g. a religious figure; a wealthy or formally educated or politically well-connected person; a (former) senior civil service member; a hereditary status)? Or to their individual competencies and dedication (e.g. a woman who has been the driving force behind various local women’s organisations)? Or the fact that in their composition, the peace network or committee includes all locally relevant social groups? Or the effectiveness of their performance in resolving conflicts? Perhaps a combination of various factors?

11. How ‘durable’ are the conflict-resolution results from their action? Unless they have an ‘enforcement’ authority, continued respect of the ‘resolution’ achieved will depend on sustained acceptance by the conflicting parties and on social pressure. That may not be enough to prevent one or the other conflicting party to restart the confrontation, or to seek a more advantageous outcome elsewhere, e.g. from the formal judicial system. Do they (try to) address factors that often contribute to escalation, such as fire arms among the population, drug abuse, deliberate rumour mongering, one-sided historical narratives etc.? Are local peace capacities able to ‘transform’ conflicts, especially if they have deeper structural roots (e.g. increasing pressure on land and water due to demographic growth and climate change) or are they ultimately mostly calming down tensions – temporarily?

12.  What do they see as enabling and constraining factors to their effectiveness? An interesting question to explore, especially if the answers are compared with insights derived from the in-depth analysis of a diverse enough set of cases they treated. Including cases of unsuccessful intervention. What factors are under their influence, which ones can, or must others address?

13.  How do they connect to the state structures? State action may be necessary.  Land disputes for example may require involvement of official surveyors and the land and property registry service. Conflict-inducing factors may lie in the political history of the state, so too then must their resolution. For example, different families may have formal ownership titles to the same assets, given by different political patrons over several regime changes. In many contexts, a state structure remains or is trying to re-establish itself as the primary source of authority and arbitration of disputes and conflicts. Customary law may not fully coincide with state laws. The local peace structures, and the outcomes of their intervention, may not be recognised by the state authorities, or even seen as competitors of municipal or district authorities seeking to re-assert themselves. Alternatively, they may get formal recognition as a valued complement to the limited capacities of the state. And possibly get some public budget allocation?

14.  How does ‘local’ peace interact with wider conflict and peace dynamics? In the contemporary world, there is little ‘local’ that can remain insulated from the sub-national, the national, regional and international dynamics. It lives within a much wider landscape.  International organised crime, armed groups with external sponsors, multinational corporations, religious preachers and sects, human rights and liberal democracy activists, arms dealers and peace makers may all land in or transit through the ‘local’. So how does this interact with our local capacities for peace? Does it undermine their ability to maintain internal cohesion and peaceful relations with neighbours? Or can the successful refusal of local actors to get drawn into wider destructive tendencies be turned into a contributing factor, to halt their spread and eventually roll them back?

Hopefully these questions provide guidance and inspiration for the design, review and evaluation of local capacities for peace, within their own remit and within a broader strategic perspective. Good luck.

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STRATEGIC & COLLECTIVE CONFLICT SENSITIVITY: Illustrated through the Rohingya response

In earlier blog posts (see below) I identified some common misunderstandings and a major blind spot, when it comes to working with conflict sensitivity in practice and its link with risk management, protection and accountability to affected populations. Here I add or confirm three points, often not well understood, and illustrate them with recent observations in Bangladesh.

Key Messages:

1.           Working with conflict-sensitivity starts with strategic, not just operational decisions.

2.           Relief workers, used to delivering goods and services, do not easily practice a different approach – and may not be encouraged to do so.

3.           Working with conflict-sensitivity in any given operating environment, requires a multi-agency, not an individual agency approach.


1.           Conflict-Sensitivity Starts with Strategic Choices.

Five months into the response to the rapid, large scale, influx of people fleeing persecution in Rakhine state, Myanmar (overwhelmingly Rohingya Muslims and a few Hindu families) in Cox Bazaar district of Bangladesh, the unintended consequences of major strategic choices are becoming clear.

 The response has been characterised by the massive scaling up of mostly UN and some INGO agencies, with much reliance on expatriate staff in a supply-driven, not a demand-led, process. These same UN agencies and INGOs have largely dominated the operational coordination platform, the Inter-Sectoral Coordination Group (ISCG). Institutional donors by and large have enabled this by how they chose to channel their funds. Though there are smaller international agencies that have chosen to support Bangladeshi partners, the overall picture is more one in which Bangladeshi CSOs find themselves now in roles of subcontractors. They are confronted with the usual 'hesitations' about national organisations, that they have ‘limited capacity and should not be overstretched’, are too dependent on a ‘founder’, constitute a greater 'risk of fraud and corruption' etc. Yet many have been ‘partners’ of international organisations for decades, and several of them have received direct funding from Western donors in the past; a history or track record that seems to be largely ignored. Many also feel frustration and upset over the still too frequent attitudes of 'superiority' among internationals.

 In the recruitment bonanza that accompanied the 'surge', many of them lost some or more of their best staff to international agencies offering much higher salaries. For many months, they have been largely absent from the ‘coordination’, or internationals invited some hand-picked national CSOs without due process to ensure the legitimacy of their ‘representation’. Some point out that only the Government has formal authority to approve or deny interventions, so that donors or international should not 'oblige' them to get 'authorisation' for their proposed actions.

A second consequence is the ‘distance’ from Government. Very few government officials participate in the ISCG coordination and standards-setting meetings. Surely, challenges on the Government side also play a role. The interaction between the different governmental entities involved is not as quick and smooth as the situation requires, and policies or their application e.g. regarding work-visa for international staff, are not always adapted and consistent. Unlike in other crisis situations, there seems to have been less effort to provide the also overstretched government entities with material support and relevant expertise, at national, district and even more so sub-district level, and to develop strong working relationships. The situation is not one of ‘conflict’, but there is a clear 'disconnect' that is creating some tension and makes 'joint' planning difficult. Bangladeshi CSOs are used to work closely with the Government. Their virtual absence from the ‘world of internationals’ may be a missed opportunity to build more effective working relationships with Government.

Thirdly, five months into the response, the negative impacts of the influx, and the growing ‘mixed feelings’ among the Bangladeshi ‘host community’, have become a top priority for the Government and for those Bangladeshi CSOs that have been working in this local environment for years. Strategically, this will mean that programmes and projects will have to be designed to also benefit those sections of the host community that have been most negatively affected – a classical ‘conflict sensitivity’ scenario, that is only beginning to get some attention. As one Bangladeshi CSO director put it: “If we maintain harmony between the refugees and the host community, then we can better afford to wait for the conditions for correct repatriation to emerge in Myanmar.”

 Overall then, we see areas of tension arising because of early strategic ‘choices’ that created a response heavily centred on international agencies and their expatriate staff, most of whom are newcomers to Bangladesh - and turning over very rapidly. There has been more 'replacing' than 'reinforcing' of national and local actors. If not handled well, this could lead to more difficult relationships, that are not in the interest of any of the affected populations and will reduce the ‘value-for-money’ for those who donated. Surprising is that these issues have not been better anticipated and proactively addressed, as they have presented themselves so often in other major crises.

            2.      The Challenge of Working Differently.

The almost 700.000 people who arrived in Bangladesh over the span of a good three months in late 2017, were in a bad condition. Focusing on life-saving assistance, and the provision of basic services like shelter, water, sanitation and health, was the appropriate priority.

 But listening to staff from international and Bangladeshi agencies five months later, it is striking how superficial the understanding of the Rohingya still is. They are talked about as if they are a fairly homogenous ‘community’ which, among 700.000 people, is rarely the case. 'Majhis', or leaders of a ‘block’ of a certain number of refugee families, came into being during the influx, when the Bangladesh Army and other aid agencies needed help with the urgent distributions. Several aid workers are now talking about them as ‘community representatives’, which they are not, and using them as ‘key informants’ in their attempts to get ‘community engagement’. Yet they are all male, among a refugee population with a high proportion of women and children.

Not helpful either is the circulation of negative stereotypes about the Rohingya, among international and Bangladeshi aid workers alike. Much is made of their high rate of illiteracy, their being traumatised, their very conservative Islam, and the restrictions that are imposed on women. One can also hear more derogatory comments, about their lack of hygiene and of discipline, and their large families. Negative stereotypes do not encourage the curiosity that is needed to 'understand' this population better.

Kutapalong camp photo K. Van Brabant

Kutapalong camp photo K. Van Brabant

The few who are more knowledgeable about the Rohingya community, typically from engagement with them in Myanmar, point out that there are quite a few Rohingya who could access some education there, and often understand English and can read and write in the Burmese script; that there are many with a more moderate interpretation of their religious precepts, that there are informal woman leaders and a definitely willingness among several Rohingya women to engage more actively, if they are provided the safe space to develop that confidence and explore the opportunity, and that respected individuals and opinion-makers have been side-lined by the aid providers.

Some agencies use their projects to have more qualitative engagement with e.g. children, women and male adolescents. But the big players seem more focused on technological solutions to communicate with the Rohingya population and get their feedback and input. Technology is favoured because it makes it easier to process feedback and complaints as ‘data’ and to press a button to establish ‘trends’. Those familiar with the Rohingya however emphasise the vital precondition of ‘trust’, in a population that over the past 35 years has been systematically discriminated and at times violently persecuted in Myanmar. A trust that can only be very personalised: serious and sensitive issues are very unlikely to be shared with ‘someone’ at the other end of a phone line or an ‘app’, who is not known. All the more so, as the fear of ‘forced repatriation’ increases. Statistics, with their pretense of 'hard evidence', risk fuelling mistaken ‘insights’ and conclusions.

Over the years, we have conducted training on working with accountability and conflict sensitivity to aid workers whose experience was mostly of 'delivering' goods and services. We have learned that it can be a big leap from looking at social groups through the lens of ‘needs’ and ‘vulnerability’, to applying a lens of ‘power’, ‘inclusion/exclusion’, ‘stereotyping’, ‘distrust’, ‘tension’ and ‘conflict’. Much of this is not so easily visible (key power brokers can be residing far away), and people may be reluctant to talk about it when they don’t know if they can trust the aid worker/agency. In addition, aid workers can be reluctant to address abuse of power (e.g. via manipulation of information) including for personal profit, from influential local figures, for fear of reprisals.

Working with conflict sensitivity and accountability to affected populations requires a willingness and ability to step back from delivering goods and services, and learn about the less visible social, political and economic dynamics within and between social ‘groups’. It is a different interest and skill, requires different behaviours and may lead to different decisions and designs of interventions. For the time being, this is still in short supply in Cox Bazaar district. There is also little incentive to do so, if the whole programmatic logic, also encouraged by donors, remains concentrated on ‘delivery at scale'. Worse, there may be a ‘pressure to spend’, which leads senior managers to worry more about the ‘burn rate’ of the money, than about negative impacts or accountability to the affected populations.

              3.         A Collective, not an Individual Agency Responsibility.

For now, the assistance providers are not yet well positioned to work with conflict sensitivity and accountability towards the new wave of forcibly displaced Rohingya. In addition, few seem to pay attention to, or have any insight in, the dynamics between the Rohingya who took refuge in Bangladesh in previous years, and the newcomers who attract so much aid and attention.

Similar concerns apply when more programming is oriented towards the ‘host population’. Socio-economic and environmental impact assessments and market surveys confirm the perception of ‘burden’ and negative impacts. There is awareness that certain sections of the ‘host community’, such as those whose land is now occupied by refugees or who compete on the daily labour market, have lost heavily, though others are benefitting through jobs and business opportunities. There has already been some mobilisation against the Rohingya and the aid agencies, fuelled by such grievances, and by the perceived higher standards of international compared to national ‘social welfare’. Negative sentiments can also be stirred up by disgruntled local power-brokers who failed to have their relatives or clients hired by international agencies or get the ‘bribe’ they asked for. At the same time, there continue to be many local people who host Rohingya in their villages and homes.

What doesn’t seem currently available, at least among the international agencies, is a deeper understanding of that varied entity called ‘host community’. Several of the more local Bangladeshi CSOs (very few women-led) who have been working in this area for years, on poverty reduction, income-generation and disaster preparedness, may have such deeper insights, and the experience of navigating local politics among formal and informal power brokers. A few may be implicated, but others will have retained their independence and principles. Tapping into that local knowledge and competency will however require seeing and treating them differently than as mere ‘subcontractors’.

There is a risk that, as Government and donors direct more programming also to the host community, there will be a repeat of the same array of fragmented, competitive, supply-driven and short-term projects, that is so visible in the response to the newest arrivals. That would be a recipe for increasing existing and creating new tensions, because different sections of the host populations will see they are treated differently, and local power-brokers will play one agency off against another. There will be no shared underlying analysis and understanding and no common strategy of engagement and political navigation. Uncoordinated and unrestrained collective behaviour will then undermine the efforts of individual agencies to work with conflict-sensitivity and accountability.

‘Success’, seen not only as the effective delivery of basic goods and services, but also in a manner that reinforces rather than undermines ‘social cohesion’ within and between affected populations, will require a fundamental shift in strategic and operational behaviours among a significant number of agencies, and different incentives from the donors. That will not happen without change in the underlying ‘business logic’, and an infusion of competencies that are not core among most of the ‘technical’ experts. Can the big ship change course on time?



Conflict Sensitivity, Accountability to Affected Populations, Risk Management & Protection: How do they relate to each other?


 1.      A Proliferation of Topical Expectations.

The specialisation of relief, transition and recovery work has led to thematic fragmentation, in which different topics have generated their own specialised guidance. Faced with the expectation that we operationalise standards and guidance on such diversity of topics, we naturally chose to prioritise those that are core to our organisation’s mandate (e.g. ‘protection’), for which there is a movement around sector-wide standards (e.g. ‘accountability to affected populations’ (AAP), or that a key donor shows interest in. Others may end up being considered a wishful ‘add on’, nice to have in a perfect world, but not realistic for already overburdened aid workers.

In this blog, I explore how the four topics of the title relate to each other.

Consider a situation with some 8000 internally displaced people, living in a spread out rather than concentrated ‘settlement’, on the outskirts of a large town. Religious tensions are one of the major fault lines in this violence-affected society, and the displaced are of a different religious faith than the town residents. During the day, men from the displaced population seek casual work in town, or take part in cash-for-work schemes on public infrastructure there, organised by aid agencies in order to create some constructive relationships between displaced and host populations. Water in the displacement settlement is scarce, is trucked in usually in the mid-afternoon, and collected by women.

2.      Risk Management, Protection & Conflict Sensitivity.

We have received reports that notably women living further away from the water distribution points, often get harassed and sometimes sexually aggressed after returning with water collected from the trucks. There are allegations that aggressors come from the town population, something the local administration firmly rejects. We have also received reports of IDP men carrying out casual labour not being paid correctly by their ‘host’ employer, and regularly being insulted and threatened, even when involved in cash-for-work.

Most ‘risk management’ tends to focus on the risks to our own organisation, staff and programme. Typical risks that appear in project proposals and risk management matrices are fiduciary, security, reputational and legal risks, or risks of significant delays in our programming, making it impossible to achieve ‘results’ as planned. The focus is on internal risks and risks related to how our operating environment can impact on us.

A broader understanding of ‘risk management’ would draw our attention to ‘risks’ for the populations in our operating area. As the example shows, it then quickly invokes ‘protection’ concerns. From a conflict-sensitivity perspective, I should already have considered the ‘risk’ of unintentionally ‘doing harm’ when designing my water and cash-for-work activities. Aware of the problems, I now want to adjust these activities, but must again consider the possibly negative consequences from how I will address the two issues. I might consider, for example, opening up the cash-for-work programme to poorer families among the host community, thereby creating a mixed work force. I hope this will create more positive relationship among host and IDP workers, which may lead to a reduction in insults and threats to the latter. But that is a speculative ‘hope line’: if we do not handle this very carefully, the adjustment may have no impact or even aggravate the tensions between both groups.

The brief example shows a close connection between ‘protection’ concerns and the responsibility to operate with ‘conflict sensitivity’, There are also some differences between both perspectives, and therefore the actions that can result from them.

  • Protection work often goes down to the level of the individual: conflict-sensitive actions tend to remain more at the level of intra- and inter-group dynamics.
  • The broader risk perspective and a protection perspective, focus on the risks to certain individuals and social groups, irrespective of our organisation’s presence. Conflict sensitivity puts my own organisation into that dynamic landscape. It makes me ask whether what we do, how and with whom we do it, can, notwithstanding its good intentions, add to or create new risks of harm for those individuals and social groups.
  •  A conflict-sensitive perspective pays more attention, not just to the more visible violations of people’s rights, but also the power hierarchies and patterns of marginalisation, discrimination and exclusion, that contribute, structurally, to people’s vulnerability.
  • From a protection perspective, we tend to see unequal relationships and dual roles within those: victims and aggressors, rights-holders and duty-bearers, violator and violated etc. From a conflict-sensitive perspective, we can see a more complex picture: Not all whose rights were violated or who were aggressed, remain passive. Some offer resistance, stand up for their rights, fight back to defend themselves, or even become revenge aggressors. The previously clear-cut categories have become blurred.
  • A conflict-sensitive perspective may lead us to adopt another positioning and another role from that of a protector. As a protector, we stand with the rights-holder and the victim. Confronted with more complex conflict-dynamics, we need to position ourselves more in-between the different actors, in a place that allows us to contribute to defusing the situation and enable the conflicting actors to pursue more constructive approaches – or to support those better placed than us, to play such role.

To illustrate these last points: Consider a situation where 60 asylum seekers have been kept in a transit center for many months. The conditions are poor, and they have no idea what may happen next and when. In a protection role, we strive to improve their material conditions, ensure they have access to basic services, and help them constitute their personal dossier. We may enable them access to legal advice, and will engage with the authorities as duty bearers for their material conditions and for the speedy and fair processing of their individual cases.

One weekend however, the frustration of some of the asylum seekers boils over. They go out in the streets. Their demonstration quickly turns into vandalism, with cars being damaged and even set on fire, a shop looted, and passers-by intimidated. The authorities send in the riot police.

What used to be a rights holder- duty bearer situation, has now turned more confrontational and conflictual. From a conflict-sensitive point of view, we understand the asylum seekers but also the reactions of the authorities. Now the priority is to defuse the situation, and recreate an atmosphere conducive to more constructive interaction. To that end, we may have to reposition ourselves. Some of the asylum-seekers may feel betrayed, that we seem no longer 'on their side'. We will have to manage the, perhaps temporary but for now real, changes in relationships.

3.      AAP, Protection and Conflict Sensitivity.

Accountability to Affected Populations (AAP) is the commitment of aid workers and organisations to use the power and resource entrusted to them ethically and responsibly, combined with effective and quality programming that recognises the community’s dignity, capacity and right to participate in decisions that affect them. It means taking account of the views of affected people in the design and implementation of aid activities, collecting and acting upon feedback from them, and being held to account for the quality, fairness and effectiveness of their actions.

One important aspect of AAP is the Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA), notably by those who should be protecting and serving people in distress: government officials, aid workers, peace keepers etc. People may be vulnerable to sexual exploitation, not only from others, but also from us. We too are duty bearers. Here there is strong convergence between ‘protection’ and ‘AAP’, with AAP bringing in the same self-critical lens that acting with conflict-sensitive requires us to adopt.

AAP and conflict-sensitivity require us to pay attention to not just ‘needs’ and ‘rights’ but also to the quality of relationships. While a conflict-sensitivity lens looks at a wider set of relationships, e.g. within IDP and host populations and between them, it does include the quality of relationship between the affected populations and us, which is central to AAP.

AAP and conflict sensitivity can support each other: If we have an effective feedback and complaints mechanism, it may help us pick up unintended negative consequences of our intervention. A concern not to cause unintentional harm, will reinforce our care that the AAP feedback and complaints mechanism is indeed ‘safe’ for people to use, and doesn’t expose them to any form of retaliation. It also keeps our eye on the ‘implicit messages’ we may be sending through our behaviours: reducing people to statistics, to categories of ‘displaced’ and ‘host’, to their ‘needs’, whether we like it or not, is taking away much of their dignity, of their diversity, and of their confidence in their ability to make their own choices. Our power and privilege as aid workers can also lead to behaviours of indifference, impatience, and superiority, which further confirm to those in distress their loss of autonomy and worthiness. Fierce rivalry among aid agencies sends a clear message that competition, not collaboration, is the norm.

A conflict-sensitive way of working goes beyond the local level, where AAP is centered, and includes strategic choices such as who you take funding from, and on what terms. But if we act with great conflict-sensitivity, and prevent or mitigate negative consequences from our intervention, then this is something positive we can account for to the affected populations.

4.      In Conclusion.

At operational level, there is overall strong convergence and potential mutual reinforcement between risk management (understood more broadly), protection work, and acting with conflict-sensitivity and accountability to affected populations.

All require a quality of understanding of the operating environment that goes beyond ‘needs’ and standard categories[1] of ‘vulnerable’ people. A conflict-sensitive approach makes us ask questions about what ‘connects’ people in this environment, and what ‘divides’ them. It also requires us to understand much better the power dynamics, and the patterns of marginalisation and exclusion, or inclusion, within and between social groups.

Assessing ‘risk’ to affected populations, invites ‘protection’ actions, though both perspectives tend to keep the assistance agencies out of the landscape. The responsibility to act with accountability to affected populations and with conflict-sensitivity, puts us squarely into the picture, in a more self-aware and self-critical manner. They require us to pay attention to the quality of relationship between different components of the affected populations, and us assistance providers. Which is influenced by what and how we implement, by our behaviours, by our ability to manage diverse relationships, and to communicate but also listen well.   

The various perspectives also lead to a richer appraisal of what constitutes ‘effectiveness’: ‘Effectiveness’ is not just a matter of efficient delivery of goods and services, but of doing this in a way that takes into account the complex social dynamics within and between social groups, so that it does not increase tensions and conflicts, or creates new ones. It also means operating in a way that is transparent and accountable to the diverse affected populations. This becomes a sophisticated way of operating, for which technical and logistical skills in the team need to be complemented with social (science) skills. It expands what we monitor and periodically review, and may lead to intervention adaptations that were not foreseen. It may slow us down and increase somewhat the budget. Does that mean ‘less value-for-money’? Not if you are serious about considering ‘value’, and let the affected populations have their say on that matter.

5. Key Questions to Ask.

  • What are the risks to people in this (evolving) environment?
  • Who needs protection assistance, what would provide effective protection here?
  • What are the power hierarchies and power relations here, what the patterns of marginalisation, of exclusion or inclusion, that contribute to vulnerability?
  • What divides people here, what can connect them? How do we contribute to ‘connection’ and avoid confirming or creating further ‘division’
  • Are we providing all stakeholders here with the necessary information, on time and in an understandable manner? Does it reach everyone correctly, including those with less power and often marginalised? Can all members of the social groups here express their priorities and feed into the design and adjustments of the intervention?
  • How does our intervention (what we do, how we do it, and with whom we do it), and the power we ourselves have, impact on the relationships within and between social groups here? How does it impact on individual's and family's sense of self-worth and control over their lives?
  • Are there safe and effective ways in which people can feedback and complain to us, and are we responding timely and appropriately? Is our monitoring and listening ‘system’ effective in picking up unintended consequences, even some too sensitive for people to mention? Are we thoughtful and careful about the adjustments we then make?

[1] Men are typically not considered a vulnerable category. But in our first example, the IDP labourers into town, though men, could well become vulnerable to physical aggression and attack: a contextual vulnerability


Temporary settlement in Greece for migrants and asylum seekers. Photo: Smruti Patel

Temporary settlement in Greece for migrants and asylum seekers. Photo: Smruti Patel

PREVENTION VIOLENT POPULISM: Europeans must have the difficult conversations.

Like most other Europeans, I wonder what is going to happen with this ‘Europe’ that we constructed over the past 60 years. Maybe ‘Brexit’ was not so surprising from a population that for years linguistically identified ‘Europe’ with the countries on ‘the continent’ - as if British history has not been deeply intertwined with them. More perplexing is the shift from ‘euro-scepticism’ to ‘break up Europe’ in other countries. And the association of that agenda with what are deemed to be ‘populist’ and even outright ‘right-wing’ parties. What is going on?

In the following reflection, I argue that the drivers of discontent are legitimate and have not been taken serious enough for a long time, including by myself. But in pinning the blame on 'Europe' or 'Brussels', whatever its shortcomings and errors, we identify the wrong cause or culprit. Exiting from but certainly destroying the European project, is a remedy worse than the disease. Emotions on the key issues are running high however, and it has become very difficult for those on different sides of the argument to have constructive debate and conversations. If we don't stop and reverse this polarisation, we will find ourselves with deepening divisions that some will manipulate for their agendas, and that risk ending up in violence.

1.       Drivers of discontent.

Three big drivers of discontent stand out: immigration, economic depression, and anger with the political ‘establishment’. While some in the UK may have voted from opposition against the centralising political project for a federalised ‘Europe’, this doesn’t seem to have been a motivation for most. The ‘anti (central) government’ sentiments that have been part of American politics since its independence, are not a major driver in European politics.

Each major theme has its own narratives and sub-stories: Discontent with ‘immigration’ comes with the theory that immigrants ‘take our jobs’ and drive down wages. Not such a problem during times of economic growth, but a stronger argument in times of depression. It has a more powerful shade: too many people from other races, cultures and religions, that are alleged not to share ‘our values’, and are becoming a threat to our ‘Christian identity’. ‘Multi-culturalism’ was a nice idea, but it has failed. A third dimension more recently surged forward in the public imagination: the threat of terrorism, notably ‘Islamic terrorism’

The ‘economic hardship’ narrative is understandable, particularly in those countries that have suffered from the economic recession and harsh ‘austerity’ measures for a decade. But it also strikes a strong cord in the many geographical areas that over the past 20-30 years have become economic backwaters, with no major industries and limited job opportunities.

The sense of economic neglect, and the perceived helplessness against an influx of people that are foreign not only in ‘nationality’ but also in ‘identity’ and ‘values’, all contribute to the loss of trust in the established political parties, and a backlash against the ‘political establishment’.

The constant stream of critical and negative news by the media can only aggravate the discontents.

These narratives all carry a deep sense of frustration and powerlessness, that has been building up over many years. They have now become intertwined and transformed into a powerful mobilisation, that is given voice and legitimacy by individuals and parties that we call ‘populist’ and ‘right wing’.

2.       Is the European project another ‘March of Folly’?

After centuries of warfare, ‘Europe’ started as a peace project, underpinned by increasing economic interconnectedness, that also found ideologically support in the doctrine that free trade and liberal capitalism are the fastest road to prosperity. It gradually evolved into a political project, though in the  60 years since the Treaty of Rome didn’t make similar substantive progress as a social project.

Like other Europeans, I have my doubts about decisions that have been made, and can find retrospective justification for it. For example:

·       The rapid expansion from 6 to 28 members is understandable if we consider the violent history of our continent. But for all practical purposes it simply feels to have been ‘too much too fast’.

·       Continuing to ‘negotiate’ with Turkey about eventual membership (and using the issue in the panic politics following the mass refugee influx in 2015) is utterly absurd. There is simply no political support for it among European populations, and the Turks are understandably feeling deceived.

·       While in many practical ways the Euro-currency works for those who use it, the dangers of a common currency without common monetary and fiscal policy were well pointed out before its introduction. When Greece eventually joined the Euro in 2001, the other countries knew that the statistics of its government-finances were doctored to meet the requirements on public deft and budget deficits. They couldn’t say too much as Germany also had ‘stretched’ the rules to pay for the cost of re-unification. Greece joining the Euro was another ‘political’ decision.

·       I am not an economist (and don’t believe ‘economics’ is as hard a ‘science’ as economists pretend) but I am doubtful about endless austerity measures to deal with the economic crisis.

·       And of course, we all have doubts about an over-expensive EU-bureaucracy of privileged civil servants, and the ridiculous cost of a European Parliament, remote from its electorate, that travels back and forth between Brussels and Strasbourg more often than the British colonial administration in India moved between Delhi and Shimla.

But given our predilection for ‘negative news’ and ‘deficit thinking’, it is easy to take for granted and not to see the enormous benefits, directly but often more indirectly, that EU membership has brought to many of us, certainly economically. When everything went more or less well, from 1956 to 2008, there was broad public support for the European project. Are we going to throw all this out as soon as we hit the first rough patch? Was the European project such a ‘March of Folly’ as the euro-sceptics want us to believe? On this one I prefer to take a more Chinese long-term perspective: It’s too early to tell.

3.       Do we have the right culprit?

Discontents with the nature and rates of immigration, with losing out economically, and with a political establishment that feels very out-of-tune with ordinary people, have been around for many years. New is their merger now into a large ‘enough of this’ vote. Three of the factors that make this possible are powerful new narratives, clear messages (‘Take Back Control’, ‘America First’) and ‘new’ public figures to incarnate and spread them.

To appeal easily and widely, the narratives need to designate a clear culprit: In the US that have become the Mexicans (‘bad bad people’) and ‘terrorists’ – increasingly generalised to ‘Muslims’. In Europe we have, for the moment, a bigger culprit: ‘Brussels’.

But is ‘Brussels’ responsible for all our woes? The ‘Moroccan scum’ that Geert Wilders in the Netherlands rails against, did not come to Western Europe as an EU scheme. It were our national governments who set up the ‘guest worker’ schemes in the 1950s to do the jobs that we ourselves refused to. Illegal immigrants in the UK tend to be employed by UK nationals: That is not the result of a ‘Brussels’ rule, but of the greed of free-riding UK ‘citizens’. Nor is ‘Brussels’ responsible for the large numbers of migrants that have come to the UK from the Commonwealth. Our structural ‘labour’ problem is related to demographics, employer calculations about profit, and our distaste for certain jobs: Even Brexit minister David Davis now had to admit that migrants for the low-skilled, low paid jobs in the UK, will be needed for many more years.

Nor is the structural failure of the NHS (largely run by immigrants) as a public medical service (rather than a medical accountancy firm) of Brussels’ making. Other EU member states manage the financing of their national health care differently.

One of the factors that make the UK an attractive place for illegal immigration is that people are not obliged to be able to identify themselves. British libertarians, including the Tories, have systematically opposed the introduction of an ID card – not Brussels.

Germany has maintained a strong manufacturing sector; the UK has lost much of its. Does that not come more from Thatcher than from ‘Brussels’? Just as the ‘de-industrialisation’ in large parts of the US is the result of private sector bosses (more influential than ever in the Trump administration) re-locating their production plants to cheaper places in the world.

The economic depression in Europe since 2008 is not caused by ‘Brussels’. Remember where it all began: the lending-frenzy of the financial sector, the toxic mortgages in the US, financial instruments that even the ‘financial experts’ couldn’t understand – and the exposure of many banks who had all been stuffing themselves at the banquet of speculative capitalism. Two great catering services for which are Wall Street and ‘The City’ in London. The City Corporation is an offshore island outside the control of the London authority, and a central node in a web of tax-havens that offer escape to wealthy individuals and corporations from the rules of our societies.

The public debts of many EU member states, that force cuts in government spending, come from bailing out the banks whose executives, traders and brokers were paid excessively for their ‘March of Folly’.  Reforms were initiated on paper after the crash, but have not been fully implemented. Many banks ‘too big to fail’ remain vulnerable, but the top of the banking class is again paid more than handsomely. Neither Labour nor the Tory’s have been able or willing, to establish some ‘control’ over these ‘freedom-for-money’ gamers. Should that happen, then actually only ‘Brussels’ can establish a level playing field within the EU. 

            4.       Do we have the right remedy?

Somewhere in east London

Somewhere in east London

Large-scale migration, and zones of de-industrialisation in developed economies, are consequences of globalisation, not EU policies (the EU has been a major investor in many economically depressed areas of its members). In that sense, Trump’s withdrawal of free trade agreements is more ‘to-a-point’ than it may seem, though it must hurt interests of the economic elite that has now encamped in the White House?

What we really need is a serious conversation about ‘globalisation’: Globalisation has been sold to us for its benefits to consumers. But we are also producers. British consumers may enjoy cheaper lamb meat from New Zealand, but it puts British shepherds out of business. Look at the labels in your clothes: almost all of them are made in Asia, even if they are traded under European brands.

Incidentally, I understand that when Nigeria signed up to free trade, it opened the doors to cheaper textile imports, leading to the collapse of its own textile manufacturing, on whose jobs millions depended. Is there not a theory that economic deprivation can be one contributing factor to radicalisation?

Perhaps we should be less obsessed with ‘my direct financial profit right now’ (another Thatcher legacy?) and think a bit more wisely about our collective economic strength and resilience.  If the Swiss can do it, why not others.

We also need a serious conversation about what I call, without any inclination to Marxism, ‘speculative capitalism’, where the pursuit of profit through financial games (called ‘instruments’) has little connection to the exchange of real goods and services. If we refuse to exercise any serious control also over the unbounded capital markets, our national governments cannot effectively manage monetary, fiscal or investment policies.

We in Europe need to have more serious conversations, about

·       What ‘Europe’ was all about, what it has done well and not so well so far, and where its institutions may need urgent reform.

·       How our democratic system and shareholder capitalism encourages damaging short-term thinking, and how to counterbalance that without undoing their merits.

·       Immigration, connecting the topics of labour needs, ‘dirty’ and ‘decent’ work’, race, culture, and values.

We need to discuss whether contemporary Europe is derived from a ‘(Judeo?) Christian’ identity, or rather built on the values of the Enlightenment, such as the testing of hypothesis and reasoned debate. That is where the question of ‘integration’ needs to be situated.

We need to discuss ‘free speech’, its necessity and its limits. We do impose limits: In 14 European countries I cannot deny the Holocaust; I cannot walk over to another table in a restaurant and start insulting the people there, or cry ‘fire’ in a cinema hall, under the protection of ‘free speech’. A movement like ‘Sharia4Belgium’ may go too far for me too (Christians and Jews have historically been protected minorities in Muslim countries, but were not, as far as I know, allowed to openly call for the change of prevailing politico-religious governance and culture in those societies).

In these conversations, we need to assume responsibility for political and economic choices our national governments made over the past decades, and for their consequences. The EU is strong on universal human rights. But ‘Brussels’ nor the migrants have created the culture of (politically correct) ‘tolerance’ in the Netherlands or of ‘multi-culturalism’ in the UK, that are now the object of fierce backlash.

5.       Difficult conversations.

This will be difficult conversations, because we are no longer used to real ‘listening’.

I for one, need to acknowledge that I am fairly at ease with the growing openness and diversity of Europe in my life time. I have lived in 5 EU member states and have good friends in many others. I am married to a British national of Indian origin, find it handy to compare prices in the Euro-zone, and enjoy not having to show papers at most borders (I do carry an ID card). I have also lived in other continents, including in predominantly Muslim societies, and constantly work with people of other races and cultures. But I need to listen better to how many of my EU co-citizens, who may have lived less mobile lives, and experience and see the changes in our environment differently.

When I go back to Antwerp where I grew up, even I note how the city now is far more ‘colourful’, and has ‘ethnic’ neighbourhoods. My estimate of racially white people residing in an area of east London where I also have family and friends, is about 5% - part of them possibly of east European origin. My connections there make me feel comfortable, but I am conscious how, for many of us, this may feel ‘too much’.

I go to rural areas in Europe for their natural beauty, not to appreciate the economic backwaters they may be.

Most of my work is in war and post-war situations. After the attack at Brussels airport, I said to friends and family in Belgium: “My world now has come to you”. Sadly, violence in the world is less of a shock to me.  I definitely don’t want Brussels to become another Baghdad. But I do know that the unprecedented peacefulness in Western Europe since 1945 is a historical privilege, for which the ‘Europe’ project deserves much credit.

Personally, and more widely, we have not been attentive enough to the feelings of discomfort, frustration and anxiety that these rapid changes create for many of our fellow citizens. We haven’t taken these sentiments seriously, or dismissed them as ‘racist’, ‘backward’, ‘intolerant’ etc. Now we may find that our co-citizens with different perspectives are no longer prepared to hear ours.

At the moment, we don’t seem able to have these conversations. The socio-political developments, and the folly of referenda where the fate of the nation is decided by simply majority (constitutional changes typically require larger majorities) have created deep polarisations in our societies. ‘Leave’ and ‘stay’ voters in the UK avoid the topic in conversations with ‘the other’, or the relationship may go sour. If you enter a debate on immigration, your risk being called a ‘racial traitor’ or a ‘white supremacist’. Yet there is a universe of nuance in-between.

Finding common ground becomes hard when reason is supplanted by bare opinion. Before, we accepted that we are entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts; now we enter a world where there are ‘alternative facts’.

When narratives polarise and conversations break down, when truth lies with who shouts loudest, where there are clear and simple (‘other’, ‘foreign’, ‘alien’) culprits to blame for all our woes, and ties connecting us across divides get thinner and thinner, societies accelerate on the road to violence.

Nationalism has been a major source of warfare between European countries for centuries. A divided Europe can only leave us weaker in the globalising and rapidly changing world order today. A big winner so far is Putin’s Russia.

More worryingly, I wonder about similarities with the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s: ‘America First’ resonates with ‘Germany, Germany above all else’; Hitler was also a ‘new’ figure from outside the political establishment promising to make Germany ‘great again’; and then too we had clear and identifiable culprits: Communists, homosexuals, and Jews. The authoritarian far-right has always found fruitful soil in economic depression and widespread frustration and discontent. More or less visible, neo-Nazis and proto-fascists in Europe are exploring and exploiting the opportunities. Far-right extremists already make up 25% of people referred to the government’s counter-radicalisation programme in the UK.

Seriously engaging in genuine conversation with our fellow citizens who hold very different views, while opposing the authoritarian manipulations, is a difficult balancing act. But we must, if we don’t want to end up as ‘deeply divided societies’ too. Peace builders and dialogue facilitators working in divided societies elsewhere: we need you at home!

CONFLICT ANALYSIS: Thirteen Weaknesses To Avoid

Tensions and open violence in the world are on the rise. Relief workers, diplomats, mediators, peacebuilders, as well as private sector actors, the media and a worried general public, are all trying to understand what is happening and how these negative dynamics can be halted - and transformed into more constructive ones. Many of us carry out ‘conflict analyses’ to deepen our understanding of what is going on, who is involved and what the confrontation is about. Conflict analyses are intended to help us decide how to position ourselves in a complex landscape, and to design appropriate actions.

To make the most of it, we need to avoid thirteen frequently observed weaknesses that undermine their potential.

Wall paintings Nafusa mountains, Libya

The Wrong Attitude.

1.       Conflict-analysis as administrative requirement: We only do a formal conflict analysis because our donors or headquarters want to see one. So we tick the bureaucratic checklist, once. But there is no noticeable connection between our programming and the analysis.

2.       Mandate and supply-driven conflict analysis: We analyse the situation in such a way that it will justify what we wanted to do anyway, based on our mandate, or the particular service we supply. Or what funding is available for. If my agency is focused on political party development, then our conflict analysis is likely to put problems with the political party system and practices in this country, center-stage. If our mandate relates to population-movements and forced displacement, then our analysis may put the spotlight on that phenomenon as cause and consequence.  If there is a lot of funding available to prevent violent extremism, then we will orient our analysis towards the threat of radicalisation and violent extremism. Understandable as these institutional reflexes are, they are not likely to produce a deep and nuanced insight in what is going on, particularly as seen through the eyes of the key actors and stakeholders in the country concerned.

Methodological Weaknesses.

3.     Confusing context-conflict-situational analysis: Certainly if we are outsiders, we need to understand the general context we operate in. Just as we read the introductory chapter in a Lonely Planet guide before going on holiday somewhere new.  But not everything in a ‘context’ is relevant for the conflict-and peace dynamics. Context-analysis also tends to relate to conflict- and peace analysis as the parts of an ice-berg above and below the waterline. Much of the conflict-and peace dynamics is not easily visible. A situational analysis on the other hand, focuses more on the short-term and what happens on the surface. We need it to inform our tactical moves in that situation. But without an understanding of the deeper currents below the surface, we will remain in reactive mode, unable to operate more strategically.

4.       Making too much of ‘phases’ of conflict: We tend to talk about ‘pre-‘, ‘during’ and ‘post-conflict’ situations. That is a misnomer. What is really refers to is the occurrence and scale of violence. A formal peace agreement, just like a governmental clamp down, can significantly reduce the level of violence. That doesn’t mean the ‘conflict’ is over. At best, over time, it will indeed transform into a generally more constructive dynamic; at worst it will be ‘frozen’, perhaps only temporarily. It may flare up again. And of course in many places we see protracted conflicts: take Colombia, the Philippines, Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan as examples, perhaps Kosovo too? It may make more sense to talk about periods of rising tensions and escalation, and moments of de-escalation. That also forces us to be more realistic about what we might be achieving. And tells us we need to engage for the long-term.

5.       Seeing only ‘open conflict’: We all know from personal experience that there can be ‘tension’ and ‘simmering’ conflict. There is no shouting or shooting, but the fault lines are there. Generally speaking, outsiders are not good at sensing this. They also remain blind to it, because they fail to actively inquire into it.  By 2005, the UN Mission in Timor Leste was hailed as a success. Even though the country had been virtually run for several years by thousands of experts, there was simply no awareness of the tensions among the East Timorese who had so recently gained their independence. Until intra-Timorese violence broke out in the spring of 2006. How connected are we, really, to the societies that we come to assist, if we miss so much of what is really living among its people?

6.       Making too much of ‘root causes’: Personally, I find it much more helpful to analyse a situation in terms of ‘key drivers of conflict’, and ‘contributing factors’, than searching too long for ‘root causes’. For two reasons: First: Conflicts are like viruses – they mutate. While there are continuities in the decades-long conflicts in Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan etc., there have also been significant developments and changes. We must work on the contemporary dynamics before we can ever hope to address some of the long-standing, structural causes. Secondly, addressing ‘root causes’ is likely to be way beyond our programmatic and institutional abilities. Perhaps one of the ‘root causes’ of conflict in Afghanistan is the long-standing tension between a modernizing urban elite and a conservative rural population, that goes back at least 100 years. There is no programmatic solution for this, even if we had large-scale programme funding for a decade guaranteed. In Guatemala, one of the ‘root causes’ of 36 years of civil war undoubtedly was the deep socio-economic inequality, with wealth heavily concentrated in the hands of a small super-rich elite. The civil war ended with the Peace Agreements of 1996. But the deep inequalities persist – and are probably one of the factors why politically-driven violence in Guatemala has mutated into social and criminal violence. Focusing on ‘root causes’ may weaken my understanding of how conflict transforms, and lead me to overpromise about what my intervention can realistically achieve.

7.       Uncertainty about the chosen time frame: How far does my conflict analysis go back in time: Five years, twenty years, a hundred years, more? Does the 1389 Battle of Kosovo have a role in the analysis of the ongoing conflict between Serbs and Albanian Kosovars? Do the Crusades (also as seen through ‘Arab’ eyes) a thousand years ago, have to figure into the analysis of the contemporary geo-political confrontations in the Middle East? There is no generic standard for how to treat ‘history’ in conflict analysis. But we can take three elements into account: a.  Personal experience: People’s own lived experience, and usually that of their parents (which they have absorbed as children) plays out in how they behave regarding conflictual issues. b. Important political changes: The 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement that is the basis of the contemporary states in the Middle East, remains a relevant reference. So too the changes from a one-party to a multi-party system, for example in Ivory Coast and Guinea Bissau in the early 90s, as it creates a different landscape for political competition. 3. Historical narratives: All of us live with selective narratives of history, which make us remember certain things, and forget others. Conflict entrepreneurs propagate narratives that incite emotion and polarisation. Participants in violence construct personal narratives to justify their actions: Listening to those who fought in civil wars. It seems there were only defenders and victims, no attackers or perpetrators. So we need to pay attention to the different narratives, and what historical events they use to mobilise and justify, not for their historical truth, but as a contributing factor to the contemporary conflict dynamics.

8.       Pushing for one ‘conflict analysis’. It is in the nature of conflict (and peace work) that there are different narratives about the conflict (e.g. Israelis and Palestinians see the same events in very different light; there are different narratives about the historical relationship between Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda, just as there are different narratives about important aspects of the Second World War etc.) Competing narratives are precisely an indicator of the fault lines or antagonisms between different groups. Trying to erase the differences into one ‘agreed’ narrative, may actually lead us to converge with the narrative of a particular interest group, and make us reject the narrative other actors. Given its atrociously brutal behaviour, there wasn’t much sympathy for the narrative of the RUF in Sierra Leone- And yet, however distorted, the narratives of those we ourselves don’t agree with, point at some important factors that feed the cycle of confrontation and destruction. If for no other reason than that it appeals enough to mobilise support, we should bring it into our analysis. (Apply this to rule also to the current controversies over ‘migration’ and ‘Brussels’ in Europe.)  Rejecting or neglecting some of the narratives may also weaken our potential to play a constructive role as a (principled but still) impartial ‘3th party’ in that environment.

9.       Insufficient attention to the economic interests in violence and conflict: In situations of violence and open conflict, many suffer economic losses. Our tendency to design programmes based on ‘needs’, directs our attention to this. But for others, violence and war create opportunities for economic gain. Maintaining a situation of violence and open conflict also requires economic resources. Transforming conflict implies transforming war economies into peace economies. A tall order. Not paying attention to the economic dimensions – and benefits- of conflict, means we miss an important factor.

10.       Failing to acknowledge somewhat separate yet also interlocking ‘conflict dynamics’: Typically, the conflict (and peace) dynamics at local or ‘micro’ level has a certain autonomy. Yet it also connects with the national and international dynamics. During the stabilisation period in Liberia for example, local level tensions and volatility could well be influenced by influential people based in the capital Monrovia or even abroad, who operated with a game plan of wider scope. The same happens in Somalia. The long-standing tensions in Tripoli city in Northern Lebanon, which have repeatedly erupted into violent clashes, relate to very local factors and dynamics, but are also mixed up with national Lebanese politics, and nowadays with the conflict dynamics in Syria and even the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. International actors can deliberately stir up tensions and clashes in Tripoli as part of their ‘political messaging’ and games to each other. While in return, locally-driven eruptions of violence can undermine the fragile balance and ‘entente’ among national Lebanese actors. Effective peace work will require engagements at the different levels, not necessarily all by the same organisation.

11.       Neglecting the capacities and initiatives for peace. Conflict analyses, like needs and many other assessments, tend to become portrayals of a ‘glass half-empty’. We focus on the problems, what isn’t working, the miseries and tragedies.  The media, with their motto that ‘good news is no news’ strongly encourage this. This also suits our organisational interests, as many of us intervening in conflict believe that we as outsiders and professionals must and can bring the ‘solutions’. Problem solvers look for a problem like a hammer looks for a nail.  But there is no situation of conflict where people are not also trying to reduce the violence and create more constructive dynamics.  And where even more people are uncertain, feel powerless or are sitting on the fence like swing-voters. When supported and encouraged, these too can join the forces that oppose division and promote renewed connection and constructive relationship.  So there is ‘water in the glass’, positive energy and drive, to learn from and to work with. We need to bring these out in our analysis, so that our action will support these forces for peace, rather than go parallel to theirs or even unintentionally undermine them.

12.       Failing to inquire into what has been tried before. Before large scale violence broke out, or while it has been going for a while, there usually have been different attempts to prevent or reduce escalation and to (re-)establish a climate of constructive resolution of differences. Our analysis should look at these, and why they apparently haven’t produced the desired results. There can be a multitude of reasons: it was the right design but the wrong timing or the wrong leadership for the process; the design had some fatal flaws such as not including some key players etc. We will need reflective ‘insiders’ to these attempts, to identify which ones turned out critical in a particular instance. We need this learning to make our own attempts ‘smarter’. If we did, we wouldn't continue to organise the sporadic 'Israeli-Palestinian peace process' in the same mould as the last 25 years.

The Wrong Attitude.

13.       Analysis paralysis: Convinced by the previous observations, we now embark on such a deep, refined and nuanced analysis, that we don’t get to act anymore, always wondering whether another actor or perspective must not be first included, and whether we are giving the right value or weight to a certain factor or actor. Our conflict analysis becomes a Ph.D. dissertation.

In practice, it is well possible to avoid both extremes of a superficial and biased analysis and a never-ending one. We can do this by practicing four good habits: a. Start out with the awareness that conflict and peace dynamics are multi-facetted and multi-layered phenomena, that you need to approach with nuance and finesse. b. Make the time to listen and listen and listen, to a wide variety of actors and stakeholders, but to also test the coherence of their perspectives and reasoning by asking catalytic questions. c. Pay attention to stories, events, reactions that do not easily fit in your understanding of what is going on, and who and what drives it, and enrich, adjust, refine that understanding in an iterative learning process. d. Accept that you, nor anybody else, will ever fully understand the conflict and peace dynamics, because, like the human beings that are central to it, it is not rational and coherent.


DANCING WITH THE EXTRACTIVE INDUSTRY: The Limits of Normative Policy and Guidance

Big business, particularly the extractive industry (oil, gas, mining) in many countries is a catalyst for violence, violations and conflict.

Big business, including the extractive industry, is a catalyst for economic development, improved governance and peacefulness.

These ‘villain’ and ‘hero’ stories are, as Ganson & Wennmann point out in their excellent and thought provoking book ‘Business and Conflict in Fragile States. The case for pragmatic solutions’, the two prevailing narratives yesterday and today. Both narratives can find supporting evidence in illustrative cases and credible arguments.

The ‘business as villain’ narrative has a long history, that includes for example the Arab and European slave trade, the predatory practices of the Dutch and British East India companies, the ‘blood diamonds’ of Sierra Leone, the violence in the oil-rich delta in Nigeria, the secessionist and internal war catalysed by the Panguna copper and gold mine in Bougainville, and the many protests and violent clashes with communities over company behaviours and impacts in the Andes. The singular drive for profit is said to encourage greed at all levels of the society where the extraction takes place, causing immense social, cultural and environmental damage. Macro-level statistics support the argument: few countries with rich natural resources have actually made significant improvements against their Human Development Index, and the number of contestations and confrontations of local communities with companies, often backed by the state security forces, is clearly increasing. Not surprisingly, a recent DCAF report, authored by Pedro Rosa Mendes, makes a strong plea to look more closely at the relationship between “Business and Security Sector Reform”.   

The ‘business as hero’ narrative also has its supporting cases and arguments. Its proponents point out that big business investments will develop new skills, create jobs and stimulate local enterprise, bring improved infrastructure and enhance basic services such as health, water and electricity. Oil allowed Norway to rapidly transform from a predominantly agrarian into an industrial and post-industrial society. The 2011 High Level meeting in Busan no longer put aid central but opened up the policy horizon to international investment as powerful driver of development. Such investment, and market forces more than ‘projects’, are seen as far more effective for job creation and poverty reduction. China’s urbanisation and economic modernisation policies are often referred to as the greatest poverty reduction success. From this perspective, ‘Ease of Doing Business’ assessments and rankings become very relevant. Oil, gas and mineral commodities remain primary ingredients for most businesses. Chevron’s Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta, Total’s relations with communities around the Yadana pipeline in Myanmar, or Pacific Rubiales Energy’s investment in making waste water useful locally, are some examples that ‘win-win’ situations are possible. This is well argued and promoted, for example, in FSG’s report ‘Extracting with Purpose. Creating shared value in the oil and gas and mining sectors’ companies and communities’, and the wider ‘Shared Value Initiative’ (

The ‘private sector-as-driver of development’ perspective has also become linked to the desire to build or strengthen legitimate, efficient and effective state institutions, that have a healthy governance relationship with all components of the population. Where natural resource extraction is already taking place, support is offered to the national government to manage the benefits for the population as a whole. Where it may start or be expanded, support is offered to national governments to strengthen their capacity to negotiate fine-tuned agreements that will ensure that companies take responsibility for minimising negative impacts and enhancing positive ones. Though relevant and appropriate, these efforts as usual tend to be pursued with a technical rather than a political economy perspective. That may hamper their effectiveness or even help to consolidate the power of an elite and its narrow supporter group.

The key question is: Are extractive industries willing and able to invest in win-win or shared value efforts? Although there has been progress over the past 15 years, the general feeling remains that many companies are not yet ready and sometimes not willing to take the step.

Non-company actors have taken three major approaches:

·       Pressure: Exposing and denouncing violations and negative impacts from extractive companies, often by international and increasingly national NGOs, remains a frequent strategy. It seeks to shame companies into changed behaviour or invite national and international oversight and regulation. Increasingly, such campaigners have also been engaging investors to exercise greater diligence. While appropriate, a confrontational approach naturally encourages defensiveness on the side of companies.

·       Persuasion: Articulating and calculating the business case: companies in trouble with local stakeholders risk e.g. direct costs from interrupted production, damage or loss of assets, injury or even death of staff, increased expenditure on security. Much bigger can be the cost of legal cases and reputational damage, leading in extremis to consumer boycotts, disinvestment and falling share prices. Benefits of serious societal engagement can be a stable business environment with little interruption in the supply chain, a more skilled, healthier and motivated local workforce that is often cheaper than bringing in workers from elsewhere; more competitive local suppliers, and new business opportunities in the local market. The key question is whether good societal engagement enhances the company’s overall competitiveness and sustainability? Sceptical company managers may point out that, irrespective of the costs of conflict in certain locations, their overall profitability continues to increase. Proponents of better societal engagement argue that it does bring ‘returns-on-investment’. They are supported by research such as the 2011 ‘Spinning Gold’ study, which looked at events around 26 gold mines over a 15-year period, and found that increased cooperation and reduced conflict with stakeholders enhanced the financial valuation of a firm.

·       Regulation or Partnering: Much of the recent global effort and institutional proliferation has concentrated on this approach. The Principles of the UN Global Compact were a milestone in this regard. Like never before, the UN focused on the private sector and invited them in as partners in creating a better world and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are an important complement. Investors are asked to take their responsibility and guidance, such as the Equator Principles, the International Finance Corporation’s Performance Standards, or the Principles for Responsible Investment, speaks particularly to them. There is now also a series of references particular to the extractive industry, such as the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and the Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development Initiative.

Most of the public debate has been about whether voluntary guidance is sufficiently effective, or whether a more binding regulatory framework is required. Less attention is paid to the more fundamental question: Even if a company makes major efforts to abide by these principles and standards, will it be sufficient to avoid or stop conflict and violence? Ganson and Wennmann believe not.  

What is the problem? Various factors make the translation of lofty policies and principles difficult. Here are some:

·       Mismatched time frames: Even if efforts to build more legitimate, efficient and effective state institutions at national level are successful, they are likely to take twenty to forty years (see World Bank 2011 Development Report). Companies nor communities in conflict can wait that long.

·       It’s the Local! The prevailing policy discourse on conflict, violence, fragility etc. continues to take the national state as central unit of analysis and action. Yet, as Ganson and Wennmann point out, the global learning shows that the drivers and actors in systems of violence and conflict are largely local, even if there is influence from actors and factors elsewhere. Local actors do not necessarily care about international policies and national legislation. The primary drive to reduce violence and conflict therefore must also be strongly local. The successful reduction of violence in Medellin came from collective local initiative, and is not automatically replicated in other Colombian cities.

·       Incomplete Problem-Analysis: Much of the policy prescription focuses on the conflict generated by company action, and assumes a fair degree of company control over the dynamics. In many instances, there are longer-standing patterns of conflict and violence that a company arrives into, and a multitude of actors that play a role in it. Even if the company tries to do everything right, it is only part of a wider dynamic, much of which is beyond its control.

·       Awareness, corporate cultures and capacities: A few thousand companies around the world now engage with these initiatives. Yet there are many more that remain unaware of them, and remain narrowly focused on company competitiveness and profit. There has been significant criticism, for example, of the ways in which Chinese companies operate in Africa, which are perceived as highly insensitive and causing many negative impacts. The many attacks on Chinese run companies and personnel indicate that this is not just a critique of frustrated Western neo-colonial powers. Chinese business and governmental officials have become aware of the direct and indirect costs. One important element here is simply lack of experience: Chinese companies, mostly state-owned enterprises, only started investing globally some 15 years ago. Abroad they operated as they were used to do at home, i.e. dealing with government only and relying on government to sort out all the social issues. They do not (yet) have the capacities of other multi-nationals to assess risks including ‘non-technical risks’. They are not used to dealing with NGOs, let alone engage in longer-term community relationship processes. Sustained, constructive engagement by, for example, the American Friends Service Committee, seeks to help these Chinese companies become more attentive, and better equipped to pre-empt and handle such conflicts (see Dr. Jiang Heng 2015: “An Evolving Framework for Outward Investment. A Chinese approach to conflict sensitive business” which is a slightly adapted English version of an original Chinese publication). Other companies have well established and more experienced Corporate Social Responsibility departments, but suffer from the ‘silo syndrome’: The people in the CSR department may be well versed in stakeholder processes etc. but this remains largely disconnected from the rest of the company culture and mind-set. In addition, many CSR initiatives remain conducted with a transactional mind-set: some charitable investment is made locally, on the assumption that the ‘social license to operate’ can be bought. This turns out not to be the case. Much deeper, broader and serious investments in relationship building is required. Some companies have come to understand this, but they rarely have the in-house competencies on societal issues that are required to manage such multi-stakeholder processes.

·       Trusted Brokers: As we know from experience, the effective reduction of violence and conflict requires collaborative action among many actors, across social and political groups and levels. This is often impeded by a competitive mind set and lack of trust. There is vital need then for individuals or teams that can gain the trust of all, to first act as connectors and convenors, and later as catalysts and facilitators. They can create the conditions for different actors to develop some functional relationship, discover their common interest, and mobilise in concerted action, each using its own strengths and entry points in their own domain of influence. Only such intentionally combined effort has a chance to transform entrenched patterns of violence, confrontation and conflict. This is where practical peacebuilders have expertise to offer.

My own work in Bougainville a few years ago, leading a very consultative peace, security and development analysis, confirms the above points. The Panguna copper and gold mine on the island (part of Papua New Guinea) has been closed for some 25 years. It was a major driver of conflict that led to an armed secessionist war but also extensive infighting among Bougainvilleans. For some years now, intensive efforts are underway to negotiate agreements that will allow the mine to be reopened. Although the population of Bougainville is relatively small, there are multiple ‘stakeholder groups’ to deal with. Within the mining area, there have been different and sometimes competing associations of ‘landholders’. Overwhelmingly male, they have pushed aside the women in whom land ownership here is traditionally vested. These demand to be properly included. Then there are those whose water, forest and land have and can again be affected by the environmental damage of the mining. But Bougainvilleans elsewhere on this small island argue that they too are stakeholders, as all have been affected by the decade of violence caused by the mine. Meanwhile there are the many individuals that are now making a living from artisanal mining, a livelihood that can be threatened by a renewed large-scale and controlled mining operation. The situation is further complicated by the widespread distrust of the Bougainvilleans in their Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG), whose ‘consultations’ on the re-opening of the mine they saw as manipulative. Although virtually every department of the ABG had had a foreign adviser for several years now, virtually nobody on the island had ever heard of any of the international guidance or ‘soft law’ references that are relevant here. Nor is there public conversation about the development choices that Bougainville could make: rely predominantly on this natural resource, or invest much more in agro-forestry where most people make a living from? In such a small place, these are choices leading to significantly different futures. Finally, those seeking to broker an agreement and advising the ABG on its negotiation approach, were Australian. Irrespective of their actual integrity, this is a cause of deep distrust for many Bougainvilleans. They know full well that the mine was originally operated by BCL, a subsidiary of Conzinc Rio Tinto of Australia, and that there are strong Australian interests in who will operate it again.

The dance continues.


CONFLICT SENSITIVITY: Some Misunderstandings and a Blind Spot?

In 1999 Mary Anderson published ‘Do No Harm: How aid can support peace-or war”’. It was the start of an intensive reflection and learning about ‘conflict sensitivity’. In essence this draws attention to the two-way interaction between our presence and programming within an environment where there are tensions or open conflict. It makes us anticipate how conflict might impact on us and in that sense is not unlike aspects of ‘risk management’. But most importantly, it asks us to be very attentive and careful about how our presence and programming can aggravate a situation, by increasing existing inequalities, tensions and conflicts or creating new ones.

Since then many agencies have produced their own manuals; some collaborated in the Conflict Sensitivity Consortium that produced many resource materials; lots of people have been on training courses, and some donors are asking that agencies applying for funding in volatile situations demonstrate organisational competency in conflict sensitivity ways of working.

Yet in my own recent work on conflict-sensitivity with diplomats, donors and operational agencies, I still come across some persistent misunderstandings – and a major blind spot.

1. Not Uncommon Misunderstandings.

a. Because we work in or on conflict, we are automatically conflict-sensitive. A reaction not uncommon among diplomats and their advisers, it actually equates ‘conflict sensitivity’ with simple awareness that there is ‘conflict’ around. That is not good enough. ‘Conflict sensitivity’ demands that we are very attentive to whether our presence and actions actually aggravate the situation. If the diplomatic world really acted with ‘conflict sensitivity’, we would not see the frequent competition between countries and individuals for primary roles in ‘mediation’. After all, this signals to the conflicting parties that strive rather than collaboration is actually OK, and gives them plenty of opportunities to play games and shop around for the mediator most amenable to their interests.

b. Conflict sensitivity is a(nother) methodology. Manuals and training courses on conflict-sensitivity teach us, for example, about ‘dividers’ and ‘connectors’, to be attentive to who benefits from resource transfers and what ‘messages’ we send, also implicitly through our actions and behaviours. This our overloaded colleagues in the field are then expected to apply on top of, say, methodologically guided gender and market analysis, monitoring of smart indicators, and perhaps later ‘outcome harvesting’. Yes, also for conflict-sensitivity there is methodological guidance. But working with strong conflict-sensitivity is first and foremost a responsibility. The medical Hippocratic Oath to ‘above all, do no harm’ is an ethical prescript, not a methodology. If our goal is to protect people from distress, to relief suffering, reduce violence and build peace, then not aggravating the situation should be a concern that goes deeper than a methodological worry. Not only at the project level but also at the macro-level. If only the big international players had acted with greater conflict-sensitivity in Iraq after 2003?

c. The unit for conflict-sensitive practice is the individual agency: Much of the effort has been focused on ‘mainstreaming’ conflict sensitivity within individual agencies, and their partners and contractors. That is necessary but not sufficient. Very often tensions and increased conflict arise from the dynamics generated by the actions of different agencies. To use the above example: The conflict-sensitive behaviour of one mediator can be totally offset by the actions of other would-be mediators. If one agency has been supporting local communities to grow dry land rice and develop a seed bank, and another then comes in with free food handouts, the rice and seed bank work will probably collapse, and conflict ensue between the agencies and different members of the community. If one agency offers medical care to refugees and host populations, and another only to refugees, the resentments in the host community will still persist and may increase. Individual agency monitoring systems are not geared to assessing possibly negative impacts of different agencies intervening in different ways around similar issues in the same environment.

d. Conflict-sensitivity can be practiced from an office: Aid workers nowadays spent far less quality time ‘out in the field’ than 25 years ago, because we have so much bureaucracy and communications to deal with, and security procedures to observe. Yet there is no effective way of finding out, timely i.e. before derailment or escalation, whether your presence and actions have negative impacts, than being ‘out there’. You need to have your finger on the pulse. You need to really understand the environment you are operating in. Good monitoring ‘systems’ with ‘indicators’ that pick up rising tensions or conflict, still fundamentally depend on people picking up and correctly interpreting the signals. At the same time, we cannot overly rely on the indicators we monitor, because in their own way they create tunnel vision. They focus our attention on certain elements, and distract us from looking wider. We need to also hang around in that environment with a mind, ears and eyes open to the ‘unexpected’, the signal that we had not identified as an ‘indicator’.

 2. A Major Blind Spot? Interventions to catalyse transformative change.

‘Do No Harm’ thinking has been developed first and foremost with reference to relief operations. But as the mediation example already shows, it is applicable to the wider spectrum of political/diplomatic, developmental, peace and governance ‘interventions’. Within the peacebuilding world, the notion that ‘peace work’ might in certain instances increase tensions and conflict is still as surprising as diplomats discovering that perhaps they are not that ‘conflict sensitive’.

Many of these interventions pursue outcomes that change the status quo, particularly with regard to power relations. Where there is no real ‘democratic culture’ we know that the introduction of multi-party politics and elections heightens tensions and conflicts as the competition for power and control over state resources gets sharper. Rights-based programming is going to make the duty-bearers uneasy; security sector reform will be seen as a threat by certain elements in the military and police; women empowerment programmes challenge the social superiority of men; peace work is troubling to those who benefit from the war economy; providing farmers with reliable and timely market information reduces the power of the middlemen who buy their produce and take it to market etc. In some instances, the change process will increase tensions but there will not be too much upheaval. In other situations however, those who feel that their power is being challenged, will resist more strongly and even fight back.

So what does this mean with regard to conflict-sensitivity? If the outcomes we pursue imply significant changes in the socio-economic and political ‘order’, some people are going to perceive their interests as being ‘harmed’. So our ‘Do No Harm’ motto cannot be absolute. A more equitable society rarely comes about without conflict. And where there is no elite or broader social pact that violence has no place in the power struggles, blood may well be spilled.

Certainly outsiders coming into another society, not just to relief suffering but with a larger change agenda, need to seriously examine their responsibilities in encouraging and supporting transformative change efforts. Because these change efforts will increase tensions and may escalate conflict. And because those most at risk of countermeasures by those in power, will usually be local people. Where our programmes empower women to pursue a significant change in the gender relations, sometimes angry men will threaten our agency staff. But overall it is their women who are most vulnerable to backlash. Just as the farmers are more vulnerable to aggressive attempts by the middlemen to maintain their monopoly positions, or local activists demanding disarmament and demobilisation can be attacked by fighters who don’t want to lose their power derived from the gun.

Here we see clearly that ‘conflict sensitivity’ is not a matter of ‘methodology’ but of ‘responsibility’. The central question is: What is our responsibility when we encourage and support transformative changes that can put others at serious risk? And what does this mean in practice?

Two attention points can be identified already:

  • Our ‘legitimacy’, our ‘social license to operate’ in this environment: If we as outside agency, with local partners, encourage and support transformative change that is likely to increase tensions and conflict, we can only do so if we have fairly broad-based acceptance and legitimacy among the local population.
  • Local stakeholders determine the threshold of acceptable risk: Given that they are most vulnerable to possibly violent backlash, it have to be local stakeholders that decide the tactics, timing, pace and intensity of the change effort. This is of course not as straightforward as it sounds: some will be prepared to take more risk than others and want to push on. Others will fear this is too dangerous. How do we handle this?

The practical meaning of ‘conflict sensitivity’ when programming for transformative change is not something that has been well researched and reflected upon. It is urgently needed. Any studies, case examples and reflections are warmly welcomed.



“How do you prepare for ‘dialogue’?”

This was one of the interesting, and rather unexpected, questions from one of the participants from Myanmar that had come to Geneva for a three-week training. They came from civilian branches of government, the security forces, political parties and Myanmar ‘civil society’. My session topic was ‘public’ or ‘national dialogue’.

Public conversations about the whole transition process undoubtedly take place in the freer atmosphere that has emerged in Myanmar in recent years. The strategic question here is: How can the broader populations of Myanmar ‘be part’ of a process that will result in choices which will have great impact on the society for decades to come? The discussion of ‘big issues’, ranging from the constitutional make-up of the country to the responsible use of its natural resources, is scheduled to take place in a ‘political dialogue’. Even if this includes a fairly large number of ‘delegates’, the overwhelming majority of Myanmar citizens will not really be part of the shaping of their future society. There are experiences and approaches that can enable a wider, informed, participation of a larger section of the population, and this we talked about.

But what quickly struck me in our conversation was the degree to which the prevailing notion of 'political dialogue' for this diverse group was that of ‘negotiation’. They anticipated an interest-based bargaining. Some apparently even had been exposed to the difference frequently made by mediators between ‘position’, ‘interests’ and ‘needs’. How could this be? Are the various peace-support organisations engaged in Myanmar so oriented towards ‘negotiation’ processes that they have overlooked to also provide information, exposure and experiential learning of ‘dialogue processes’ to the people of Myanmar? Are they being trained in ‘mediation’ more than in ‘facilitation’?

In any case, their question was on the table: How do you prepare for ‘dialogue’? To answer that, we needed to get back to fundamentals about ‘dialogue’, in the sense of a high quality type of conversation that is different from negotiation but also from debate or discussion. The central skill in dialogue is ‘listening’. This because the purpose of dialogue is ‘understanding’: for me to understand where the other comes from and what shapes her or his behaviour. And hopefully also for the other to understand where I come from and what shapes my behaviour. Clarity of speaking can be helpful for this, as one participant pointed out; but we all regularly struggle with articulating clearly what we want to communicate.

Attentive and deep listening can help to overcome the deficiencies of expression, because the listener listens beyond the words. The listener is willing to make that effort because s/he has a deep interest in understanding the other. The attentiveness and care with which s/he listens also conveys this care and commitment to understand to the other, often a powerful experience that generates basic respect and trust. Attentive listening in order to understand does not mean that the listener will or has to agree. But if we make the effort to understand the other, and demonstrate that through our listening effort, the way in which we will express our ‘disagreement’ will also become very different.

Preparing for dialogue therefore is fundamentally different from preparing for negotiation. I need to develop my listening skills and not my negotiation skills. I need to calm and open my mind, so that I can listen without being hindered by my own prejudices, emotional reactions and self-interests. I may need to slow down, so that I respond wisely rather than react impulsively. I center myself well and anticipate to find myself in difficult moments, so that I am not easily thrown by harsh words or antagonistic signals from the other. I also inquire deeply within myself, about what shapes my mind-set and my behaviour towards the situation in the country we find ourselves in, and towards the other that I am encountering. What are the many experiences and perceptions of the past that shape our present and -if we are not careful- will also influence our future? What pains and anger do I carry with me, that make it difficult to have even basic trust in the other now? How focused am I on not losing out, that makes it difficult to imagine win-win situations? How am I going to convey to the other where I come from so that s/he understands me better? How am I going to react if I sense that the other is not making an effort to do so, but seems to remain in a competitive mode; will I quickly return to the power-dynamics and the negotiation game, or persist with an effort to establish dialogue? Am I prepared to sustain the dialogue, even if we seem stuck or get upset and are ready to walk away?

'Dialogue' in the sense described here, is not typically a cultural given, or a personality trait that most of us grow up with. It is something we have to and can learn.

Not all key actors will be open to dialogue, and several will only respond to the balance of power and influence. Not all socio-political and economic problems can be addressed with ‘dialogue’ only. There may be no alternative to negotiated choices. But experience suggests that negotiations preceded and supported by ‘dialogue moments’ are likely to yield better agreements than those without.